Personal Finance Education is Essential

Attending a recent Board meeting for an agency that helps working homeless families obtain sustainable permanent housing, a thought struck me. We partner a licensed clinical social worker with families to help them on their journey while we offer temporary rent subsidies based on the client’s ability to afford 30% of the housing and utility costs relative to their monthly income,

Much of what these social workers do is help with budgeting for “needs” and prioritizing less “wants.” Yet, another key element is to require the parent(s) to attend classes on personal finance training. We partner with another agency to do just that.

The thought I had is we should require high school students to take a semester course on personal finance. One of my sons took this course as an elective, so I know the curriculum exists at least in our public schools. And, he benefited from it.

This course could run the gambit from monthly budgets to checking/ savings accounts to investments to credit/ loans to ID theft prevention. We are largely a financially illiterate nation. This would help educate people to make more informed decisions.

To illustrate my point, there was an economic study in New York several years ago called “Class Matters.” The study demonstrates that people in a lower socio-economic class ask fewer questions of advisors, bankers, lenders, etc, when they should be asking more. I call it the “suit and tie” effect. This is how people can sign up for mortgages they cannot afford, how they can succumb to predatory lending on car loans or make the mistake of using a pay-day lender. These folks are preyed upon because of their financial illiteracy. This also is one of the reasons for the 2007 housing crisis as lenders provided mortgages to riskier lendees.

I am not saying mandatory personal finance training will end homelessness or poverty, but it will arm our graduates to budget better and ask more questions. Avoiding 23% car loans can impact a budget in a major way.

If you agree, please reach out to your local papers and politicians. To me, this a sustainable and impactful change.

A Fighting Chance – Senator Elizabeth Warren’s mantra

If Hillary Clinton chooses to run for President, she would be the odds on favorite to carry the Democratic nomination and likely the White House. The irony is, at least on domestic issues, she may not be the best female candidate from her own party. That might fall to Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, who is the inspiration and instigation behind the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog created for the common citizen. Warren has said she won’t be running for President, but she would be a formidable candidate.

I have been a fan of hers for several years, especially after I heard her utter these apropos words when asked why she did not like Wall Street. She said, “I like Wall Street, I just don’t like cheating.” As an attorney and professor at Harvard, she has been a subject matter expert on bankruptcy in the US. This helped formulate much of her fighting spirit against cheating or rigging the system against those in need. When even bankruptcy judges incorrectly noted why people were becoming bankrupt, she did her own research and noted they tended to be people who worked hard, tried to start businesses or got overextended and had no recourse. She also noted banks made money preying off people who were on their way to trouble and did not want to stop that gravy train. The banks actually fueled the fire by offering more credit or consolidated credit when the person should have torn up their credit cards.

I just completed her latest book called “A Fighting Chance” which is an excellent read about her journey and fighting for people. She truly is the champion for the common person. And, yet if you mention her name in some circles, you may get a more negative reaction than to Hillary’s name. Banks do not like her as she called them out. The banking lobby spent $1 million a DAY to lobby against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau being included in the Dodd-Frank Act. Her name was dragged through the mud and she was a target of undue criticism and innuendo. To many, the banking lobby’s zeal to prevent this bureau from succeeding is prima facie evidence that it is needed.

Banking used to be one of the more honorable professions, but the leaders of the industry threw that out the window by taking advantage of its customers, especially those who could ill-afford it and did not ask enough questions trusting the people in suits. There is a study of a few years ago called “Class Matters” whose principal finding is economic class matters in people’s decision-making. The lesser the class, the fewer questions are asked of service providers. These folks do not have the education or confidence to ask questions to explain what something meant. So, they would not fully understand that a variable mortgage could increase their interest rate by 200 basis points and would sign on the dotted line.

I would encourage you to not only read her book, but check out what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is all about at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/.  The purpose of this agency to protect consumers when banks, pay-day lenders and mortgage lenders are aggressively and fraudulently marketing their products. They have fined lenders close to $4 Billion for selling products and services that consumers did not ask for, aggressive marketing or even malfeasance. Over 90% of the monies collected go back to the impacted consumers, with the remaining amount going to fund better education and tools for borrowers and consumers. As an example, Bank of America was fined earlier this year for over $750 million for selling additive services to credit card holders that they did not ask for.

It will be arguable that when the Obama administration is viewed retrospectively, the creation of this agency will be one of his shining moments. He owes it to Elizabeth Warren. She gave and continues to give people of all persuasions a fighting chance. And, if you hear someone denigrate her name, that should be a lightning rod that shows which side that person’s bread is buttered or that person is getting their information from a source which caters to people who do not need her help. Reading this book shows how an industry and their spokespeople on the Hill tried to mow her down along with the agency. The rest of us need an advocate like Warren in our corner, now more than ever. But, don’t take my word for it, check out the book and the website link above, and draw your own conclusions.