I do not understand my finances. Well, a small correction— I didn’t understand my finances. I have given myself a three month crash-course in personal economics and now I am starting to come to grip with a them. Starting to. I am 30 years old.
Sure, I could have commenced on my self-education some time ago— and I undoubtedly should have. But part of the problem is the total dearth of personal finance education. It’s really shocking. People joke that we should have learned taxes in school instead of trigonometry. But screw that, taxes are simple. There are millions of apps to walk idiots like me through my taxes in half an hour. But why the hell didn’t anyone teach us the difference between an IRA and 401(k)? I have a lot of questions. What is a Roth IRA? Should I register as a small business or just keep all of my receipts in a sock under my pillow? How is a credit card good, but bad, but good, for your credit? Seriously. Why did nobody tell us how to do this?
I know I’m not alone in this. Not because I hope I’m not the most shambolic woman in the world— I probably am. But the numbers show that personal finances are shocking. The UK household debt is at record levels, largely due to credit cards. US household debt passed 2008 levels earlier this year (thanks a lot, student loans). Part of this is down to stagnate wages, unemployment, and ballooning cost of living.There are so many problems with the economy in both countries and, understandably, consumers are struggling. But some of the problem is an epidemic of financial illiteracy and that problem is, at least in part, an institutional failure.
We Need It Sooner
One teacher spoke to me about the personal benefits of compound interest. Only one. Not compound interest generally, not macroeconomics, but why I should have a retirement account from the day I turned 18 and how it would grow exponentially. The only problem was, I was 11. I only had a piggy bank that was actually a parrot who squawked when you put money in. Interest and retirement funds were not really in the picture.
But my peers and I would have benefitted so much from a comprehensive schooling in personal finances as teens and young adults. I am a (fairly) intelligent, educated person and teaching myself the benefits of stocks versus mortgages versus savings versus a bag full of nickels has not been an easy feat. I’m starting my act together. I don’t have all the money I would like to, but I feel like I’m understanding what to do with it when (if) it finally arrives. I understand why ‘diversifying’ is important. I’ve combatted the drawbacks of being self-employed with an IRA.
But this shouldn’t have been a struggle. It should have been knowledge that we were armed with, before we took on jaw-dropping student loans and just stopped looking at our bank accounts with a ‘no-news-is-good-news’ sort of hope. We should have been given this knowledge earlier, before we made huge financial decisions without full understanding of the consequences. There are so many changes that need to be made, to tuition, to loans, to housing, and more. But personal finance literacy is one of them. Balancing accounts has proved far more useful than balancing equations.