The numbers are grim: More than half of American families have no money set aside for retirement, Federal Reserve data show. By some measures, roughly nine out of 10 working Americans do not meet even conservative retirement targets for their age and income.
And even those Americans who do manage to put some money away don’t have nearly enough to meet their needs. The median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for those households whose members are near retirement, reports the National Institute on Retirement Security.
Are we simply a profligate nation or is it that we all need a tutorial on financial literacy?
According to UVA professor Richard Netemeyer, it’s a little bit of both. “Evidence suggests that younger folks today do not have the level of delayed gratification that their parents had,” he says.
But giving people financial education doesn’t seem to help much either.
A new paper published in the August 2014 issue of the journal Management Science by Netemeyer, Daniel Fernandes of Erasmus University in the Netherlands and John G. Lynch Jr. of the University of Colorado finds the effects of financial education dispiriting. Their paper, a meta-analysis that examined results from 168 scientific studies of efforts to teach people to be more financially literate, shows that taking a class in financial literacy has scarcely any effect on making people save more.
“It’s pretty pronounced,” says Netemeyer, who teaches in the McIntire School of Commerce. “If you look at financial literacy and financial education as a means for consumers to make better decisions, there’s not much of an effect.”
Nevertheless, Netemeyer says that does not mean we should get rid of attempts to teach people about finances. Instead, we should tailor financial education to specific life events, like getting a mortgage or taking out a student loan. Financial education, he says, needs to be delivered at the time closest to when participants need it. “Don’t abandon financial training, but do it in a manner that is just in time,” he says.
For example, he says, “I wouldn’t teach a high school student about a mortgage rate. I would teach a high school student about college loans. It not only has the timing but also the correct information given for the decision being made.”
Netemeyer also says that psychological traits—particularly confidence level and the propensity to plan for money in the long-term—have a profound effect on putting financial know-how into practice. “People who have confidence that they are searching for the right information, and have trustworthy sources of that information, will do better,” he says. “Planning for money in the long term is also important. Planning what your financial needs will be over a long horizon just results in better financial decision making.”
Netemeyer says he is becoming more interested in what he calls “financial well-being,” the sense that you are not anxious about your level of savings and have some objective criteria to back up that level of satisfaction. “That’s the next step beyond financial literacy—‘Do I feel good about the savings I have?’” he says.
Netemeyer says the need for financial well-being is greater than ever now, in the shadow of the Great Recession. “It’s one of the most pressing problems,” he says. “Look what’s happening. You have people who want to retire who are working into their 70s. When I’m 80, I don’t want to be worried about money.”