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State of U.S. financial literacy means advisors are more important than ever

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Ladies and gentlemen, as advisors in the life planning and retirement arena, you have your work cut out for you.

And based on a recent survey, you likely will enjoy job security for the rest of your career.

The Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services Global Financial Literacy Survey is billed as one of the “most extensive global surveys to date of financial literacy,” with 150,000 adults in more than 140 countries tested on four basic financial concepts: numeracy, interest compounding, inflation and risk diversification. The researchers aimed to “provide information to academics, regulators, policymakers, and business associations to help them understand people’s economic and financial knowledge levels around the world.”

The findings paint a fascinating, and yet sad, picture. Worldwide, two-thirds of adults are considered financially illiterate, with the results from most countries showing that men are more literate than women.

The United States ranks 14th overall in financial literacy, behind several Scandinavian countries, Israel, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.

And although the U.S. fares better than most of the world, the research shows that its financial literacy score is just 57%, which is comparable to the scores of Belgium, Switzerland, New Zealand and Singapore.

Among those surveyed, only about 45% of U.S. adults are saving for their old age – and 66% of them are financially literate.

There are also variances in financial literacy related to gender, income and education. Collectively, American men displayed a financial literacy 10 points higher than that of women; worldwide, the average gender gap is 5 percentage points (men above women).

Americans with less education have lower financial literacy levels: those with a college education ranked 28% higher in financial literacy than those with just a secondary education. This was the largest gap among the G-7 countries (i.e., Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and the U.S.).

Financial literacy declines 10 percentage points, to 47%, for U.S. adults living in poorer households. Globally, the income gap is nine percentage points, with 36% of adults in richer households and 27% of those in poorer households financially literate.

A basic understanding of key financial terms such as interest and compound interest was lacking when respondents were asked these questions:

  • Suppose you need to borrow $100. Which is the lower amount to pay back: $105 or $100 plus three percent?
  • Suppose you put money in the bank for two years and the bank agrees to add 15 percent per year to your account. Will the bank add MORE money to your account the second year than it did the first year, or will it add the same amount of money both years?

In the U.S., only 62% of adults who have a mortgage from a bank or other financial institution could correctly answer the question about interest, despite the fact Americans’ use of credit card and student debt is among the highest in the world. In fact, interest was the “least-understood topic in the U.S., with 40% of adults answering the interest topic incorrectly,” according to the report.

If items as simple as interest stump most Americans, the need for advisors to counsel clients (or better yet, provide pro bono assistance) about the intricacies of 401(k) savings, annuities and mutual funds is more important than ever.


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