“Why don’t they teach this stuff in school?” I often hear people say when it comes to personal finance.
It’s a fair question. In sixth grade, my young and irreverent science teacher wrote SEX on the chalkboard in big capital letters to introduce us to an ongoing lesson in human reproduction and sexuality. We giggled.
But no one ever wrote MONEY in big chalk letters when I was in school. I don’t remember ever learning about compound interest, how it’s your best friend when you’re saving and your worst enemy when you’re in debt. My mom taught me how to balance a checkbook. My dad told me to never get a credit card. When I opened one in secret, I learned from experience that credit card interest is like a black hole that swallows your entire financial picture if you’re not careful. In sixth grade, I didn’t learn any of this. (But hey, I learned what the cross-section of a penis looks like!)
That said, there are organizations dedicated to teaching financial literacy to students, but it’s not as simple as people seem to think. A few years ago, I interviewed the president of the Jump$tart Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to financial literacy education. I asked what their biggest challenges are in the classroom. One of them, president Laura Levine told me, is deciding who should teach personal finance in the first place:
“There isn’t a way to identify where all the finance teachers are,” Levine told me. “If you teach algebra, there’s very little debate that’s in the Math Department. But personal finance might be social studies or consumer science or business. There are a lot more variables.”
In other words, personal finance is not just about math. It involves variables like personal habits, behavior, and even circumstance. After all, the money advice that applies to me now didn’t mean a thing to me just a few years ago. And the money advice that applies to a high-earning DINK couple trying to reach financial independence isn’t going to be the same advice that applies to a low-income family of four.
The bottom line is, we all need financial literacy, but we need a lot more than that to actually get our money in shape because, as Levine said, there are just so many variables. We need to feel motivated to figure out what works for us, considering those variables. And in order to feel motivated, we also need to feel a sense of control over our finances (and most of us feel the opposite). It’s not enough to throw Money 101 at people and expect them to figure it out. We have to acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different, and with wage stagnation and income inequality, many people face additional challenges that compound interest is just not going to fix.
If you’re in the personal finance world, I urge you to consider these additional challenges when you write about money. As I’ve said before: if you want to help people figure out how their money works in the real world, shouldn’t you acknowledge how the real world works?
And if you’re just someone who wants to get their finances in order, remember: personal finance is personal and behavioral. It’s important to learn the basics of how money works, but it’s crucial to focus on your own thoughts, biases, and feelings around money, too. We all know self-awareness matters. But it also goes a long way toward feeling a small sense of control over your money, and sometimes even a small sense of control can make a big difference.