Does Financial Literacy Matter?

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 11:56 AM EDT

We recently received the grim news that American schoolkids are behind their international peers when it comes to financial literacy. We can add this to the pile of grim news about American schoolkids being behind their international peers in math, science, reading, and every other subject imaginable.

Is this actually true? Well, it depends on which tests you rely on and which countries you compare to. And when you disaggregate by income and race you often end up with different results. Still, it's a good horror story, and one we can't seem to get enough of. The financial literacy debacle fits right in.

But forget for a moment whether American high school students really suck at financial literacy. The Economist raises an entirely different question: does it even matter?

Perhaps most important, courses in personal finance do not appear to have an impact on adult behaviour. As Buttonwood has pointed out, the knowledge that students acquire in school when they are in their teens does not necessary translate into action when they have to deal with mortgages and credit-card payments later in life. One study, for example, found that financial education has no impact on household saving behaviour. As a paper by Lewis Mandell and Linda Schmid Klein suggests, the long-term effectiveness of high-school classes in financial literacy is highly doubtful. It may simply be the case that the gap in time is too wide between when individuals acquire their financial knowledge, as high-school students, and when they're in a position to apply what they have learned.

Now, I've long had my doubts whether any of the actual knowledge I learned in high school matters. Habits matter. Basic skills matter. The ability to figure out how to figure out stuff matters. Learning to sit still and concentrate for half an hour at a time matters. But trigonometry? Catcher in the Rye? The history of the Gilded Age? That's not so clear. Maybe financial literacy falls into the same category.

Alternatively, it may be that education has little impact on our behavior in general. We all know that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, and yet that knowledge does us little good. Most of us overeat anyway. Likewise, even if we know that interest charges on credit card debt can eat us alive, we might just go ahead and buy that snazzy new big-screen TV anyway.

Who knows? Maybe education outside of (a) basic skills and (b) highly specific skills used in our professions really doesn't matter much. If that turned out to be true, I can't say it would surprise me an awful lot. Being a Renaissance Man may be overrated.

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