Who Needs Financial Literacy the Most?

04/23/2012 8:30 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

The irony of our nation’s increased emphasis on teaching good money habits is lost on the one group that seems to need it the most, writes MoneyShow personal finance expert Terry Savage.

April is Financial Literacy Month—a nationwide effort to “highlight the importance of financial literacy and teach Americans how to establish and maintain healthy financial habits,” according to Wikipedia.

Yes, the effort to spread the word about the importance of financial skills and capability has earned a place in our national consciousness, spurred on by the results of the mortgage crisis.

We’ve recognized the need for financial education. Groups like Junior Achievement and Jumpstart and the Council on Economic Education are providing programs and resources for classrooms. Every financial institution sponsors events in the community, and offers resources on its Web site.

But the one group that seems to need financial education most, and has access to the greatest resources, appears to have the least financial literacy of the entire population.

I’m talking about Congress, of course!

That is where our financial illiteracy is most apparent. Think about it. During Financial Literacy Month, there will be innumerable courses taught across the country about the basic tenets of budgeting your money. Yet Congress hasn’t been able to agree on a budget for the past three years!

And the most basic tenet of budgeting is to spend less than you earn, and set aside a small amount regularly for savings. That’s certainly a lesson that Congress needs to learn. For the past 23 years they’ve run a budget deficit every single year—spending far more than they take in.

This year the gap will be nearly $1.3 trillion. Just for this one year! Add up all those deficit years and you get our National Debt—now bumping up against the $16 trillion mark.

Many young children—and I include myself years ago—have awakened during the night to hear their parents arguing about money: where it went, how it was spent, what they can’t do because there isn’t enough money. Parents find a solution—whether they cut back, or take a second job, or work longer hours. They know that they can only borrow so much before they reach the limit.

But Congress argues into the wee hours about “raising the debt ceiling.” It never seems to occur to them that they must take real steps to deal with their imbalance. Of course, Congress does have an out that is not available to most people: Government can simply “print the money”—something the Fed threatens to do these days as the economy starts slowing again.

I was in Washington, DC last Monday, as part of Financial Literacy Day on Capitol Hill. The irony seemed lost on most elected officials and staffers who attended the “literacy fair” in the Hart Senate office building. They came to praise the organizations and volunteers who develop financial literacy programs for our children and communities.

They could start by setting a good example. And that’s The Savage Truth.

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