American teens may know everything about the latest pop star, but very little about money. On an international financial literacy test of 15-year-olds, the U.S. came in a dismal ninth out of 18 countries. "It reinforces the point that our young people are not being well-prepared for a life of financial well-being, and it's a critical issue," says David Anderson, Executive Vice President of Working in Support of Education (w!se).  

Getting educated

Some parents may grumble that learning about money can wait. Besides, isn't it a parent's job to handle the money? Ideally yes, but too many adults lack financial literacy themselves. "Many people today don't have an emergency account," says w!se President and CEO Phyllis F. Perillo. "That's all about living life on the edge, and not knowing there are ways to stay in control of their financial lives. It's so much easier to get on the right track when you're young."

Financial literacy can be integrated into existing subject matter, such as math and language arts. "Plus, this is a subject young people are interested in," says Perillo. "There are various ways of providing instruction, but it has to be provided."

Changing the culture

Part of this work is teaching young people how to filter the messages they get from our marketing-driven society. "The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau did a study of spending among the organizations in the financial sector comparing advertising versus financial education initiatives," says Anderson. “It was a contrast of $17 billion versus $670 million, meaning that they spent $54 per person on financial marketing but only $2 educating them.”

With Americans having little understanding of how to manage money and non-stop messaging to spend it, our debt culture is no surprise. "The line between a want and a need is not very clear to most people," says Perillo. "There are people who feel you can only have financial well-being if you're already rich, and that's not true."