Back to School: Finance 101


School is about to begin, and that's got me in an education state of mind. Unfortunately, money matters typically have not been a part of our school curriculum. It shows.

A few years ago, Standard & Poor's Global Financial Literacy Survey rated the U.S. number 14 on a list of countries able to answer a host of questions on topics such as inflation, compound interest and risk. There are no medals for 14th place.

While missing out on this type of award probably doesn't fuel your desire to jump on the school bus, I hope this discussion will spur you to expand your financial knowledge.

Here are five ideas to help in that quest:

  1. Take a class. You may wish to opt for an old-school classroom environment by signing up for a personal finance class at your local community college. Classes that cover the basics of investments, insurance, budgeting and estate planning are commonplace. There's no limit to what you can learn when you're an active participant. I don't know about you, but as an adult learner, I've found the classroom to be a lot more inviting. If you'd prefer a virtual learning environment, there are several personal finance programs designed to train future professionals, and these can deepen your money knowledge. Check out the Institute of Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State University here.
  2. Engage an expert. A free visit to a counselor at the nearest Military & Family Readiness Center or an appointment with a financial planner might start you on the path to financial enlightenment -- and more importantly, can help you draw up a financial action plan to achieve your goals.
  3. Listen carefully. It wasn't long ago that listening and learning opportunities were limited to a few weekend finance-oriented radio shows. These days, you have a plethora of options. I just searched for money podcasts and was overwhelmed while browsing through the top 50 -- yes, 50 -- ways to learn about money on your time and terms. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are several money podcasts targeted directly to military families.
  4. Grab the bull by the horns. Experience is the best teacher, and on-the-job training trumps book learning every time. You've got to do it to learn it. If any of those statements rings true for you, the best solution to attacking the gap in your financial knowledge may be to take a more hands-on approach. That could mean tracking your expenses to figure out where ALL your money goes. If there are areas you tend to avoid ("it's not my job"), it could mean buckling down and working with your spouse to ensure you understand all that's happening with money in your marriage. You may not change the roles and responsibilities, but you will understand. Working with investments? Sign up for one of the many low-entry platforms that allow you to dip your toes in the water of stocks and investing.
  5. Don't leave the kids behind. If we're truly going to move the needle on our 14th-place finish, it must start with our kids. This means initiating age-appropriate money discussions at home. What's age-appropriate? Check out the FDIC's Money Smart materials at its website.

It may take a few years to claim a spot on the financial literacy podium, but if we don't start working it one family at a time, we'll be settling for second-tier status.

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Personal Finance