Financial Literacy and Retirement Prepared-Ness: Evidence and Implications for Financial Education; the Problems Are Serious, and Remedies Are Not Simple

By Lusardi, Annamaria; Mitchell, Olivia S. | Business Economics, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Financial Literacy and Retirement Prepared-Ness: Evidence and Implications for Financial Education; the Problems Are Serious, and Remedies Are Not Simple


Lusardi, Annamaria, Mitchell, Olivia S., Business Economics


Economists are beginning to investigate the causes and consequences of financial illiteracy to better understand why retirement planning is lacking and why so many households arrive close to retirement with little or no wealth. Our review reveals that many households are unfamiliar with even the most basic economic concepts needed to make saving and investment decisions. Such financial illiteracy is widespread: the young and older people in the United States and other countries appear woefully under-informed about basic financial concepts, with serious implications for saving, retirement planning, mortgages, and other decisions. In response, governments and several nonprofit organizations have undertaken initiatives to enhance financial literacy. The experience of other countries, including a saving campaign in Japan as well as the Swedish pension privatization program, offers insights into possible roles for financial literacy and saving programs.

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Workers and retirees have increasingly been asked to take on an unprecedented degree of responsibility for their retirement and other saving, as defined benefit pensions decline and government programs face insolvency in one country after another. As a result, consumers now confront a bewildering array of financial decisions and a wide range of financial products ranging from 401(k) plans to Roth to regular Individual Retirement Accounts, phased withdrawal plans to annuities, and many more. This process implies that it is becoming ever more important for households to acquire and manage economic know-how. But in practice, there is widespread financial illiteracy; many households are unfamiliar with even the most basic economic concepts needed to make sensible saving and investment decisions. This has serious implications for saving, retirement planning, retirement, mortgage, and other decisions, and it highlights a role for government, employers, and financial institutions working to boost financial literacy and education in the population. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2005) defines "financial education" as:

    "The process by which financial consumers/investors improve their
  understanding of financial products and concepts and, through
  information, instruction, and/or objective advice, develop the skills
  and confidence to become more aware of financial risks and
  opportunities to make informed choices, to know where to go for help,
  and to take other effective actions to improve their financial
  well-being."

Building upon this definition, we provide a review of the current state of financial literacy and financial education programs and discuss whether consumers/investors appear to possess the financial literacy necessary to process financial information and formulate adequate saving plans. We also offer some examples of efforts to enhance financial literacy.

U.S. Evidence on Financial Literacy

Researchers have undertaken several recent studies of financial literacy in the United States. For instance, a survey conducted for the National Council on Economic Education by Harris Interactive (National Council on Economic Education, 2005) indicated that nearly all U.S. adults believe that it is "important to have a good understanding of economics." But despite this lofty goal, the evidence shows that actual financial knowledge was sorely deficient for both high school students and working-age adults. The survey consisted of a 24-item questionnaire on topics grouped into categories including "Economics and the Consumer," "Money, Interest Rates and Inflation," and "Personal Finance." (1) When results were tallied using standard grading criterion, adults had an average score of C while the high school population fared worse, with most earning an F (average score of 53 percent). Particularly troublesome were the sections dealing with money, interest rates, inflation, government and trade, and personal finance. …

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