Overcoming the 'Eye-Glazing' Factor In Making Financial Decisions

Literacy Researchers Face Barriers When Giving Advice
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Financial literacy researchers have no shortage of recommendations on how people should handle their money, how families can learn more about their finances, and how a crisis can encourage new ways of thinking about these issues. For J. Michael Collins, these recommendations are based on long-term research into the pressures people face and how individuals interact with a complex financial world. But what are the barriers to making this knowledge translate into actual changes in behavior?

Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed the challenges of promoting financial capability in an Aug. 4 interview on Wisconsin Public Radio's Central Time.

Data from the 2015 release of the National Financial Capability Study had the report's authors writing that Americans "demonstrate relatively low levels of financial literacy and have difficulty applying financial decision-making skills to real life situations." Asked about some of the "eye-glazing factors" involved, Collins offered his thoughts on how to make personal finances less overwhelming.

Forget about math for a minute.

Interest rates, inflation, income versus spending — these are all essential concepts to understand, but Collins doesn't recommend using any of them as a starting point. Instead, he said, people should start by thinking about where they want to go in life, and let those goals determine their financial priorities. From there, they can ease into the nitty-gritty stuff by tracking monthly income and expenses.

Emphasizing goals can also help financial educators get through to people who don't want to listen to an expert lecture about how to handle their personal affairs, Collins said. "One of the [reasons for] resistance to financial issues is it's dollar signs and it's money and it's math," he noted. "Some people have been trained to shy away from those kinds of topics... [but] it's not about math, really. It's about choices."

Understand that different goals will mean different financial approaches.

In keeping with a focus on goals and choices, there's no one set path to financial well-being. For instance, Collins said, depending on what a person wants to accomplish, it might be wise for to increase borrowing, or to pay down debt and try to build up savings.

Know when to ask for help, and who to ask.

No matter how well someone understands personal finance, the pressures and decisions of daily life can be overwhelming in practice. Scams, unscrupulous behavior by banks and other entities, and the sheer complexity of financial products and services make it hard to know where to turn for assistance. "Unfortunately, in the financial space, a lot of the people who are providing help are not there to actually provide help, they're there to help themselves," Collins said. "There's a lot of scams in this area." 

Collins said that people looking for help do have free and non-profit sources to turn to, where financial experts will use their know-how in consumers' best interests. One place to start, he said, is debtadvice.org, run by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

If you're a Wisconsinite, give yourself some credit.

The National Financial Capability Study found that Wisconsin residents tended to score a bit higher than most Americans on a quiz assessing their financial knowledge. But when asked to subjectively assess their own financial literacy, Wisconsinites ranked themselves a bit lower than most other Americans. Collins said this speaks well to the humility of the state’s residents, but also to their ability to handle life's financial quandaries: "They actually say they're worse than the average respondent in the survey, but when we ask them the quiz questions, they do better!"

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