Money and our ability to manage it determines how well we live, how well we are able to care for our families, how well we sleep at night, and, yes, how well we will enjoy our golden years. So why, after dealing with the stuff every day of our lives since early childhood, are so many of us klutzes in the way we handle it?
If there was a single moment that ignited my interest in this question, it was the time my grandson asked me for some tips on handling money. Having recently graduated from high school, he was preparing to leave for college.
"How does a checking account work?" he asked, "and what, exactly, is a CD?" Those questions caught me by surprise.
How could a student having just completed 12 years of successful navigation through primary and secondary schools in a much-honored school system not know how a checking account works? Could it be that he was the only student in his graduating class who failed to absorb such financial rudiments? Or could it be that 12 years of schooling - which is all that many Americans ever get - did not include even a brief introduction to the world of personal finance?
Local school administrators provided the answers. Yes, courses in personal finance are part of our local high school curriculum ... but they are elective courses. Students received no such instruction unless they had enough foresight to choose those courses as electives.
And how many students are likely to display that sort of forethought? Not many, according to a survey by the American Savings Education Council in Washington. The study found that most students age 16 to 22 have never taken a high school or college course in personal finance.
Fortunately for me, my fellow classmates and I were never called upon to exercise financial vision during my public school years. This type of learning was mandatory. As early as junior high school, I clearly remember being instructed in the basics of such things as balancing a checkbook and the power of compound interest, whether I liked it or not.
A changing world
Of course, 50 years ago, the world was a far simpler place. There was less to learn and fewer pitfalls waiting to ensnare the unwary. "A penny saved is a penny earned" was pretty much all we had to know in those days.
It's far different today. Making the most of your resources in today's hardscrabble financial arena is a much more demanding - and potentially rewarding - task.
Many experts agree that our primary and secondary school systems make little or no attempt to teach students how to function in today's complex world of personal finance.
"Most high school seniors graduate as financial illiterates," says Dara Duguay, a finance expert and former executive director of Jump$tart, a coalition of companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Jump$tart was founded to promote financial literacy, especially among younger people. If there are youngsters in your family, you may want to check out Jump$tart's website at http://www.jumpstart.org/. It offers mini lessons on financial literacy for each month of the year.
By the time you read this, we'll be far into the year 2010, but it's not too late for you to download a digital copy of their free 2010 calendar. It features 12 important principles designed to help young people (and all of us) take their first steps down the road to financial literacy.