A state-by-state survey of people’s financial knowledge was released Wednesday by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, and the results aren’t pretty. But the information can be invaluable to advisors as they try to figure out not just what clients know, but why they behave the way they do.

In a conference call announcing the results of the survey, John Gannon, president of the FINRA Foundation; Christopher B. Bumcrot, cofounder of Applied Research & Consulting LLC; and Annamaria Lusardi (left), professor of economics at Dartmouth College discussed the data, their findings and how the information can be used.

The survey, developed in consultation with the U.S. Department of Treasury and the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, complements data from the smaller-scale National Financial Capability Study. That survey was released in late 2009. It also builds on a military survey that was released in October of 2010.

The data, available via an interactive map that reveals financial capabilities state by state and across regions, allows anyone to see how states’ populations rank in such areas as use of payday lending and whether they live paycheck to paycheck. Do they save for retirement? Do they have an emergency fund? The survey may also be taken by anyone who wants to test her knowledge against people across the country; advisors may want to consider having their clients participate so that they can see any holes in their understanding of financial concepts.

The data were gathered from more than 28,000 respondents; ideally the goal was to have at least 500 respondents from each state and the District of Columbia, and for most states this is true. A few more sparsely populated states have respondent totals between 400 and 500, and there are efforts to reflect the demographic distributions of each state. The data are weighted to match census distributions by age, gender, ethnicity, and education.

Policymakers can now use data to develop strategies based on issues that affect some states more than others, according to the Foundation. Professor Lusardi, speaking on the conference call, added that it is now possible to review the data to have more evidence across the states where national capability in one or another financial area is missing or problematic. “They can look at demographic groups that are more vulnerable,” she added.