Learning about personal finance may be the most important subject you didn’t study in high school.
That’s not just me speaking from personal experience. That’s the finding of a recent survey by the National Financial Educators Council, which asked more than 2,400 people, “What high school-level course would benefit your life the most?”
A clear majority – just over 54 percent – said that a class in money management would have made the biggest difference. In fact, money management was deemed more important than math, science and social studies combined.
The findings are no surprise. America got a “C” in financial literacy in the December 2016 National Report Card on Adult Financial Literacy.
My high school, like most U.S. public schools, didn’t require students to take a standalone personal finance class. Unlike some high school level economics classes, financial literacy also wasn’t part of my senior year economics class.
As a result, I learned about money management the hard way – by routinely over-drafting my bank account in college, overspending on credit in my 20s and shortchanging my retirement savings.
I managed to avoid crushing student loan debt with financial help from extended family and by turning down fancy graduate schools (thank you Great Recession for scaring me out of that potential disaster).
But I didn’t start to really take my finances seriously until I started writing about it.
If I hadn’t fortuitously landed a job writing about credit and debt more than six years ago, I doubt I’d know much now about my credit score or my credit card interest rate.
Over the past six years, I’ve come to appreciate what former Daily Worth editor Brooke Siegel once noted: “Personal finance isn’t an interest or a hobby. It’s the often unacknowledged undercurrent that fuels your life.”
I’ve had that quote pinned to my Twitter account for years because it gets to the heart of why I love reading and writing about personal finance so much. The choices you make with your money now could potentially reshape your life for years to come.
Meanwhile, a few wrong moves – such as a series of missed credit card payments or purchasing a house you can’t afford – can dramatically narrow your options and make it next-to-impossible to live the life you imagined.
Financial literacy is also crucial for avoiding the marketing tricks and gotcha fees that banks and other lenders are notorious for charging less-than-savvy customers.
A 2016 study, for example, found that banks often strategically tailor their credit card offers based on how financially savvy they think their customers are. (Want to guess who receives the best offers? Hint: It’s not the consumers with the least education.)
According to a 2016 report from the Council for Economic Education, only 17 states currently require high school students to study money management. A number of states are thinking about adding personal finance to high school curricula; however, it’s not clear how many will actually follow through.
That’s a shame. Far too few states – and school districts and high schools – realize that a well-designed money and credit management class could dramatically improve students’ lives long after they graduate.