The basic financial skills American adults need in order to succeed in life aren’t often taught in a classroom. For many people, there are no lesson plans and no standards for minimum financial literacy. They are just sent out into a world overflowing with opportunities to get into debt. At best, their financial sensibilities may come from lessons passed down from family members (sometimes the hard way), anecdotes from friends, and the occasional Google search.

Key Takeaways

  • Basic financial skills are generally not taught in classrooms in the United States.
  • Lack of financial education has led to Americans having inadequate household and retirement savings and high levels of credit card and student loan debt.
  • As of 2020, 21 states now require that high schools teach financial literacy, and 25 states require a high school economics course.
  • A survey of Investopedia readers found the greatest interest was in credit- and debt-related topics in the states where people are suffering the most financial hardship.

Americans Are Barely Passing

If letter grades were given out for financial literacy, the United States would get a C+ at best. Globally, the nation ranked 14th in the world for basic financial skills as of 2014, with only 57% of adults considered financially literate, according to Standard & Poor’s Global Financial Literacy Survey. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom had financial literacy rates of 61% or higher. Meanwhile, as of 2016, the U.S. was in the top 10 for highest debt per capita.

It’s well documented that a lack of financial education can lead to serious money problems down the road, and many are teetering on the edge.

  • As of 2017, nearly 40% of U.S. adults didn’t have enough in savings to cover a $400 emergency.
  • As of 2020, the median retirement savings for Americans between ages 55 and 64 was $134,000, which provides an annual income of about $7,500 per year (about $625 per month) for men and $6,975 for women (about $581 per month).
  • As of 2020, the average household credit card balance for those who carry debt month to month was $5,315, which was a considerable drop from 2019’s figure of $6,194, the first drop since 2011.
  • As of 2020, total student loan debt was at $1.71 trillion, more than double what it was a decade prior. The 2020 average was $39,361 per borrower.

A Lack of Education

It’s not just a millennial problem. The cycle of debt begins at a young age for most Americans, inciting and feeding their reliance on student loans and credit cards. Poor money management skills beget decisions made in haste, desperation, and anxiety, leading to more debt, creating more stress-induced decision-making, and so on.

Rather than teaching the skills that could prevent—or at least mitigate—bad money habits, some college campuses welcome credit card companies onto their grounds. They’re more than eager to sign up an 18-year-old to a high-interest account.

Who’s making sure they understand how interest rates work? How to manage debt? How long it takes to pay off a credit card bill if they only make the minimum payments? Not the credit card company. Not the school. Most students graduate with more debt than they can handle and at least one credit card.

Making Financial Literacy the Law

Every few years, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issues a five-question test as part of its National Financial Capability Study, which measures consumers’ knowledge about interest, compounding, inflation, diversification, and bond prices. On the most recent test, only 34% of those who took it got all five questions correct, which suggests that the basic economic and financial principles that underpin these problems are widespread.

Financial literacy quiz
Can you answer all 5 questions correctly?.

Perhaps in recognition of the situation, financial illiteracy, or at least the lack of education that enables it, may soon be against the law, at least in parts of the U.S. In North Carolina in 2019, lawmakers passed legislation that requires high school students to take a financial literacy course before they graduate. House Bill 924 created an economics and personal finance (EPF) course to provide basic instruction on 23 economic principles, including how to manage a credit card, the basics of borrowing money, and how to get a mortgage.

North Carolina is one of 21 states that require financial literacy in high school as of 2020. A total of 25 states require an economics class. These efforts come as Americans rack up a record amount of credit card and student loan debt, much of it owed by 18-to-35-year-olds. This often leads to a debilitating cycle of overspending and little if any saving or investing. As a result, according to Charles Schwab’s 2019 Modern Wealth Index Survey, 59% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Thanks to the 2020 economic crisis, this number has increased to 63% who exist just one emergency away from a financial disaster.

U.S. States Pushing for Financial Literacy Laws.

What Americans Are Reading on Investopedia

We looked into our data from 11 million monthly U.S. readers to see which states looked up which personal finance topics and how that compared with their average ratio of debt-to-household income—as well as whether or not those states were pushing for financial literacy requirements. Here’s what we found:

The Southeast, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain regions

These are the three areas that are suffering the most financial hardship. In the Southeast region of the country, states such as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida have high debt-to-income ratios, and Southeast residents were the most active seekers of information about managing their finances. The top terms and topics they searched for included managing credit, building credit, and loans and mortgages, checking them out 42% more often than the rest of the country does.

In the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions of the country, states such as New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada also have high debt-to-income ratios, and our readers there also focused heavily on credit-related stories and mortgage-related terms, the latter especially in Utah.

Both the Southeast and Rocky Mountain regions showed strong interest in the topics “How to get out of debt” and “How to save more,” suggesting that people are trying to close the gaps in their own financial education. It’s good to see that many of the states in these three regions, such as North Carolina, are making some form of financial literacy education mandatory in high schools.

The Northeast and Midwest

Northeastern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont and Midwestern states such as Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri all have low debt-to-income ratios. Readers in these regions, who are generally financially secure, were more interested in retirement and banking topics and searched far less often for stories related to credit or debt.

The Bottom Line

In a nation where movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street and TV shows such as Billions dominate pop culture, we’re often surprised by how many readers come to Investopedia for information on the most basic financial concepts. Queries for such topics as “What is a stock?” “What is the importance of a credit score?” and “How do I start investing?” lead to some of our most popular articles, even among a readership that stretches from 18 to 80+ years old.

Most Americans aren’t getting the financial education they need and are left to create a DIY patchwork of tips and tricks for money management. When financial trouble hits, a lack of knowledge makes working through and out of it even more difficult. We’re watching the effects of this financial literacy deficit manifest themselves through a swelling debt that continues to tighten its stranglehold on millions of Americans, many of whom come to us for help.

To be sure, high school should not be the only place where we learn financial literacy. But it’s a good place to start.