Cummings: Students need more financial literacy

Kelsey Cummings

Student debts are rising, but shockingly, our concerns about our financial futures are not. The unemployment rate for Americans aged 20 to 24 is at a horrible 12 percent. Yet, the same generation seems perfectly content with how it’s living. But how important is it that soon-to-be college graduates understand the inner workings of the financial world? Though it’s necessary for any person just starting out alone to be financially literate, our generation’s move into a stumbling job market and a global economy demands it.

Data from a Pew Research survey conducted earlier this year showed that out of the last four generations, ours is the most optimistic about our financial future. About a third of adults claimed they earn or have enough money now to live their desired lifestyle, 53 percent said they don’t earn enough now, but they will in the future and a mere 14 percent expressed no hope for a comfortable future. These numbers — even just compared to the previous generation’s 38, 30 and 30 percent, respectively — show a much more hopeful attitude.

As this survey did not consider the varying types of desired lifestyles, arguments could be made that generational changes in wants and needs could contribute to the data. However, this hopeful attitude may also stem from an unrealistic set of financial expectations. Another study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation found that the current college-aged generation exhibits low levels of financial literacy. Only 18 percent of individuals aged 18 to 26 were able to answer most of the questions correctly. This statistic proves to be a significant problem in a time of continued economic turmoil.

I include myself in these statistics as well. After looking into a financial literacy quiz that our very own Iowa State provides, I found that my knowledge of finances was right about where I knew it to be: very little. Out of twenty questions, I knew three, one of which was Iowa State’s deadline for the FAFSA — a date I only knew because of the copious amounts of emails I read reminding me to fill it out.

What is to blame for my financial incompetence? It was simply that I never learned. I was taught the importance of earning my own money and saving it, but my knowledge doesn’t exceed far past spending less than what you earn. And despite having taken just about every math class offered during my K-12 career, I learned little — if nothing — about practical financial skills. But even if financial literacy were taught in public schools, the generations already out of school would never receive the benefits. Today’s adults must take it upon themselves to learn.

Many of us already have a decent start on saving money by shopping cheaply. Whether it was the success of Macklemore’s popular song “Thrift Shop” or a normal reaction to difficult economic times, there are more people thrift shopping regularly now than there were just six years ago. But being able to recognize a good sale just isn’t enough to growing need for financially savvy young adults.

Iowa State offers a number of educational resources, including links to a list of commonly used financial acronyms and terms, the financial literacy quiz and CashCourse, an easy-to-use website made to help students who may be struggling with finances. The site offers tips on saving money for internships, repaying student loans and finding a job. It also offers coursework and instructional videos to those who get lost in all the financial jargon. But students must seek out these and similar resources on their own; part of being out on one’s own is taking on that responsibility.

And with a growing global economy and fewer available jobs, today’s young adults are finding themselves moving cross-country and even across the ocean more and more. With fewer familiar support systems on which to lean, these adults especially must feel comfortable with their financial situations and their abilities to handle any monetary problems that may arise on their own. We live in a changing nation, and with that comes the need for a changing group of young people. One aspect of traditional life, however, must always remain a constant: we need to understand where our money comes from and what we can do to hang onto it.