There seems to be a disconnect between those who read personal finance blogs, magazines, and websites like SavingAdvice.com and those who need to read them. Most people who read about personal finance already care about their finances. But the people who need to read about finance, who are in the most trouble, don’t. So the question I ask today is: How do we get people to care about personal finance?
We know the reasons that people should care: Financially responsible people are good for the economy. Irresponsible/uninformed people are a drain on the economy. You will likely be responsible for your own retirement; the government won’t help you. Out of control spending can lead to the loss of a home or car when payments can no longer be made. Excessive debt cuts your wealth building potential dramatically. Failure to plan and insure for emergencies means hardship in the event of trouble. No matter the reason, the bottom line is that failure to care about your finances is likely to lead to hardship in some form down the road. You would think that this fear alone would be enough to make people want to learn about finance. But it isn’t.
The list of reasons that people don’t care about personal finance is also long. It’s boring. It’s too hard. It takes too much time. I’m not good with numbers. It will all work out, somehow. The government will bail me out. I don’t want to give up anything. I work hard and deserve to spend my money how I choose. Those of us who care about our finances recognize these as justifications, not valid reasons, for ignoring finance. All of these reasons are insignificant when tragedy strikes and the person is left wishing they had spent the time to learn about and deal with their finances. Many people refuse to care about their finances until tragedy strikes and then it’s too late.
Other than having every individual go through some sort of financial crisis that forces them to care about their finances, how do we get people to care and take responsibility for their own financial lives so that the government and taxpayers don’t have to bail them out in the future? Here are some suggestions:
1. Teach personal finance in schools, starting at a young age. Kids don’t have to be in college to start understanding the basics of finance. They can understand the basics of money in first grade and add to that knowledge through the years. Educate kids about budgeting, insurance, mortgages, compound interest, retirement planning, debt, saving, and investing from a young age and they might turn out to be financially responsible adults. At the very least they won’t be able to use the “But I don’t know how excuse.”
2. Make personal finance part of popular culture. This is already happening to some degree. Television and radio personalities like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman are making inroads into popular culture. Certain authors like David Bach, Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey and Jean Chatzky are becoming more widely read. DVD’s like “Maxed Out” and “In Debt We Trust” are on Netflix. However, it’s not enough to get people away from “Survivor” and “American Idol.” Maybe we need a personal finance reality show that shows the hardships that result from not caring about finance. They eat bugs on “Fear Factor,” why not film someone who has to eat dog food as a result of their choices? How about a personal finance video game? Make more movies and TV shows that deal with real financial issues instead of giving everyone hot cars, clothes and jobs. The truth is, in this day and age, something has to be sexy, glitzy, or over the top to get attention. Finance isn’t any of these things. We need to figure out ways to get finance out into the culture and get people talking.
3. Stick to the basics. A lot of what turns people off about finance is jargon, complex ideas, and abstract concepts. Educators, producers, and writers that cater to a mass audience should focus the basics that people can relate to and understand. It’s easier to generate interest in something if people can understand it. Once they understand and are interested, then they will be more likely to seek out the complex stuff on their own.
4. Keep it human. Numbers, indicators, and statistics are scary to a lot of people and a quick turn off from finance. However, people are always interested in stories about other people. Writers, producers, and educators should include plenty of stories about others in their materials. And don’t simply stick to the high drama stories of people who lost it all or are hundreds of thousands in debt. Show real people who have succeeded simply by applying the basics of personal finance.
5. Try public service advertising. The government wants us to care about our finances so they won’t have to pay for our old age. What if they invested some money in public service advertising to get the word out? Get some well known public figures to preach the value of financial responsibility. We have advertising about forest fires, kids’ car seats, literacy, and spay/neuter programs, why not finance?
6. Get over it. We need to get over the notion in this country that money is a taboo topic. No, you don’t have to confess the gory details of your finances to everyone you meet, but if we weren’t all so uncomfortable with the topic, maybe we could learn from each other. It seems like it’s okay these days to talk about our medical conditions (or those of our kids), religion, politics, and sex; all of which were previously off limits. Why not make money a more acceptable topic of conversation?
7. Create a fun finance magazine. I’ve racked my brain trying to think of a personal finance magazine that is fun and easy to understand and can’t come up with one. Money is the closest, although it can get a little too deep into the stock market and economics for those just starting out. Unless you’re already interested in finance, I can’t see you picking up a finance magazine on the newsstand “just to see what this is.” Why doesn’t someone create a personal finance magazine that is full of basic information with a lot of human stories? Make it colorful and fun; something that will catch people’s eye as they scan the shelves. Then price it reasonably so people will want to read it.
8. Include people of different incomes. The truth is, a lot of what is written and produced about personal finance is geared towards those with a fair amount of money to save, spend, and invest. All the advice in the world about investing in the stock market or real estate isn’t going to apply to someone who doesn’t have anything left over to invest, so why should they care? We need to provide information that is relevant to those of middle and lower incomes, as well as those with higher incomes.
9. Include people of different races, ages, and genders. It’s no secret that most of the “big wigs” in finance are middle-aged, white males. Whether they are authors, government officials, or TV personalities, the majority only represent one demographic. Suze Orman and Jean Chatzky represent some of the exceptions, but they are few and far between. If more races, genders, and age groups were visible and active in finance, maybe others would take more of an interest. It’s much easier to identify with, and be inspired by, someone who shares certain characteristics with you. We can’t all be middle-aged, white males. Give us someone we can relate to.
10. Appeal to their sense of social responsibility (or guilt). I think a lot of people who are irresponsible with their finances figure it’s okay because they’re only hurting themselves. Maybe we should try ad campaigns that demonstrate the problems caused for others by financial irresponsibility. Attach a social stigma to financial irresponsibility? Maybe if it were clearer that financial irresponsibility hurts the overall economy and punishes others with higher tax rates and insurance premiums, people would feel obligated to do their part. Probably not, but it’s worth a shot.
It’s not easy to get people to care about their finances, but I think we have to do something to avoid a huge crisis down the road. When people retire with no money, walk away from debts they can’t manage, and suffer uninsured losses, we all suffer in the form of higher taxes, insurance premiums, and an unstable economy. I realize that the old saying that, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” fully applies here. All the education, information, fun, and cultural relevance in the world isn’t guaranteed to make anyone care about their finances or act responsibly. However, if personal finance were interesting, culturally relevant, and attractive to people, I think that would go a long way toward generating interest and preventing some of the problems that are going to come at us in the future if something isn’t done.