I came across an article in the Tribune business section that described a condition I’ve suffered from my whole life: financial illiteracy. I’m not alone. According to several university studies, the vast majority of Americans are clueless about managing personal finances. We are also ignorant when it comes to making smart investments.
I inherited my disability. My parents didn’t teach us how to manage money. They didn’t have a budget, or a financial plan. They lived day-to-day, hoping a client would pay an invoice. If money came in, we could stop washing our hair with detergent and go back to shampoo.
Still, my folks had financial principles. They didn’t borrow against their house. They kept the lights on and clothes on our backs. If they taught us anything, it was to put money in the right places (bills, rent, car payments, etc.) so there wouldn’t be any left over for the wrong places (Eagles albums, polyester shirts, lottery tickets).
Actually, gambling wasn’t a problem for me. A person has to care about money to enjoy wagering and I’m missing that gene. As a result, I drifted on the seas of prosperity, without feeling financial worries or developing fiscal wisdom. The Great Recession, though, got my attention. Financial illiteracy was one of the causes of the housing bust. It’s also responsible for the looming student debt crisis.
Once I woke up from my middle-class dream, I sought guidance from financial advisors. One proposed a plan that involved my taking out a large life insurance policy and dying quickly. I didn’t like it. Another wanted us to take out a high-interest mortgage, claiming the rate didn’t matter. Really!
Poor financial judgment is not limited to individuals. Our governmental bodies are experts at wasting money and exceeding their budgets. As a result, their hands are digging deeper into our pockets. Increased taxes and rampant revenue-raising are making it tougher for even the most financially-savvy to survive. Lawmakers won’t admit they’re financially illiterate but many average citizens are aware of their disability and changing their spending habits.
There are worse things, though, than being bad with money – like being obsessed with it. I have several fiscally-responsible friends who go a bit overboard when it comes to saving cash.
I’m glad they get an emotional charge from bargains but there is more to life than clipping coupons. It doesn’t matter how much money they actually have, frugality is their lifestyle. They will never get into financial trouble but rarely enjoy their riches.
I’m grateful for the trips we took, the money we invested in our kids and improvements we made to our house. Times might be tight but I have no regrets. Plus, the global crisis is making me financially literate. In fact, I’d like to pass along a little wisdom about investments:
Don’t put your money into utility companies or pricey real estate – if you buy all four railroads you can charge $200 a ticket.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.