Monday, 4 December 2017

Financial Literacy - A Problem for the Many Not the Few

"There can be little doubt than many ordinary people struggle to deal with issues of personal finance and particularly such matters as pensions and equity investments. On the few occasions I discuss these issues with friends and relations it seems the subject matter quickly moves on to less challenging topics. However, just because personal finance is not widely discussed or understood, does not mean it is not important". 

The opening lines to my book 'DIY Simple Investing'

In March 2014 two American economists, Annemarie Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell published their research (pdf) on the subject of financial literacy.  They conducted a 3 question survey to see how much respondents understood interest, inflation and investment risk.

Here are the questions :

Question 1
Suppose you have $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2%  per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?
A. More than $102
B. Exactly $102
C. Less than $102
D. I don't know

Question 2

Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1%  per year and inflation was 2%  per year. After one year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?
A. More than today
B. Exactly the same as today
C. Less than today
D. I don't know

Question 3

Do you think the following statement is true or false: Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund?

This was a global survey and the results revealed a surprising level of financial illiteracy all around the world.

Only 3 out of 10 people answered all three questions correctly in the US. In Europe, the best performing respondents were the Germans (53% got a perfect score) and the Swiss (50%), but this still leaves almost half of each country’s population without a basic understanding of very basic financial matters. In countries with relatively strong economies, the numbers are sobering: 79% of Swedes, 75% of Italians, 73% of Japanese, and 69% of French could not respond correctly to all three questions. The score for Russia was a 96% fail rate! Unfortunately the study does not provide results for the UK.

Whilst men outperformed women on the finance quiz, greater numbers of women responded that they “don’t know,” a result that held true all over the world. The upshot is that women, more conscious of their limitations, are more likely to be interested in financial-education programs.

This lack of education appears to be taking a toll - half of all Americans have nothing saved for retirement, just one third of all adults in the U.S. have only several hundred dollars in a savings account and 61% report that they don't have sufficient rainy day savings to cover six months' worth of essential expenses.

Interesting but Does It Matter?

Financial literacy involves the ability to make informed decisions which are integral to our everyday lives - how a bank account works, how to save, how a mortgage works and how to avoid debt. People who lack the basic ability to negotiate the basic financial landscape will be at much higher risk of falling prey to the unscrupulous system which snares the unwary into a spiral of unsuitable financial transactions and which result in high levels of unaffordable debt.

People with low levels of financial literacy are likely to borrow more on credit, and tend to pay off the minimum each month. They are unlikely to save let alone invest and will have little or no provision by way of pension for retirement.

This is increasingly what we are seeing not just here but in all parts of the world. In a study undertaken by the OECD in 2016 (pdf).

Financial knowledge is an important component of financial literacy for individuals, to help them compare financial products and services and make appropriate, well-informed financial decisions. A basic knowledge of financial concepts, and the ability to apply numeracy skills in a financial context, ensures that consumers can act autonomously to manage their financial matters and react to news and events that may have implications for their financial well-being. The literature indicates that higher levels of financial knowledge are associated with positive outcomes, such as stock market participation and planning for retirement, as well as a reduction in negative outcomes such as debt accumulation.

Thirty countries and economies, including 17 OECD countries, participated in this international survey of financial literacy; In total, 51,650 adults aged 18 to 79 were interviewed using the same core questions.

The UK came 15th overall, just ahead of Thailand and Albania and below the average for all countries in the study.

The survey results indicate that :

The average score across all participating countries is just 13.2 out of a possible 21 (a combination of a maximum of 7 for knowledge, 9 for behaviour and 5 for attitudes), and 13.7 across participating OECD countries, showing significant room for improvement.

On average, just 56% of adults across participating countries and economies achieved a score of at least five out of seven (considered to be the minimum target score)

Fewer than one in two achieved such a score in 11 of the participating countries (South Africa, Malaysia, British Virgin Islands, Belarus, Thailand, Albania, Russian Federation, Croatia, Jordan, United Kingdom and Brazil). However, in stark contrast, over four out of every five (84%) adults in Hong Kong, China achieved the minimum target score.
Across all participating countries and economies, two in five respondents had not saved in the last 12 months.

The weakest areas of financial behaviour across these measures appear to be related to budgeting, planning ahead, choosing products and using independent advice.
Interestingly, relatively few people are choosing new financial products with the aid of independent information or advice – including best buy tables – indicating that more could be done to guide consumers towards unbiased sources of information.

Financial resilience and long-term planning could be further promoted through
user-friendly budgeting tools and ways of monitoring income and expenditure which could encourage more adults to create a household budget and use realtime data to make necessary changes before falling into difficulty

People may also need education and guidance to identify realistic alternatives to borrowing when income is insufficient to make ends meet.

Education that applies behavioural insights, such as encouraging people to set goals and commit to them, could also help people to behave in more financially literate ways, including active savings behaviour and longer-term planning.


Maybe it's not such a big problem if most of us cannot work out the better value between a 4 pack and nine pack of loo rolls in the supermarket. Some people who are not so good with finances will be good at other aspects of life and can get by with a little help from their partner or friends.

However it matters a lot if people are conned out of life savings because they lacked a basic understanding of how the system works, or end up borrowing more than they can afford to pay back because they cannot understand APR, or opted out of a workplace pension because some guy down the pub gave them dodgy advice.

This year, personal consumer credit lending passed £200 billion in the UK.

I have been writing this blog for close on five years and I have written and self-published four books. I suspect that, whilst aiming to reach a broad audience of would-be investors, in reality I am just scratching the surface or finding a small audience of readers who are already well versed in the dark arts of personal finance. There may well be a very large section of the general public, probably well over 50% who cannot understand simple personal finances and therefore cannot access the basic information. They may never be in a position to implement a savings plan or monitor their income and expenses let alone set up a basic DIY investment portfolio.

Leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on the state of financial literacy.


  1. Yep unfortunately I think you are talking to the converted and the discussion will revolve around the best way to invest rather than invest at all. This is an area that has concerned me for some time but I'm not sure how I can help solve it; it unfortunately involves education and how do you get people to be interested in being educated in this. It probably involves getting people young or enticing them with the same ADs as those that entice them into doing the wrong things e.g. Binary ADs

    1. Gareth,

      These were some of the areas I was thinking about as I wrote this piece. One of the best ways to educate is with parents but if neither parent is good with finances then the problems will continue. Schools and formal education are another obvious avenue but I wonder how many of our teachers are confident to teach personal finance.

      I suspect it may be one of those areas where we will struggle to make any significant progress?

  2. Unfortunately, you are absolutely right! I moved to the UK 4 years ago and now more than my English husband, his family, friends, which really disappoints me. All very nice people who let the system trick them. I have also volunteered at the local credit union my first year here and couldn't stand seeing members (99% vulnerable people) depositing for 1% a year and taking loans for annual 12% mainly because they are so scared of banks even approaching them. And all of this happening in a country with so many investment opportunities! But you are right that these people do not read your blog because its too complicated to them a different approach is required to them.

    1. Thanks Aliya, keep up the good work with your credit union.

  3. Forty years ago it was my parents who made sure I was able to answer these questions by the time I came of age. That didn't, of course, prevent me taking stupid financial decisions in my youth, but at least they were born of greed rather than ignorance.

    My Dad was a fitter, my mother a SAHM, so it's not like I was born with a silver spoon. They had an interest in the world, and wanted to pass it on.

    I'm not sure this is the job of the education system. Some of the education about how the world works should begin at home

  4. People in the UK would rather invest in bricks and mortar, rather than risk the vagaries of the financial markets. Unfortunately, on the basis of the last three decades or so, they would be right!

  5. "However, in stark contrast, over four out of every five (84%) adults in Hong Kong, China achieved the minimum target score."

    In my experience, people in HK are far more likely to invest in stocks, gold, buying/selling currency or investing in property (if they are fortunate enough!) than your average person in the UK. I don't know whether this is because parents teach this to their kids or if it is taught in schools. Also, the pension available is tiny compared to the UK, so people have to save or they live in abject poverty.