The #1 Reason Americans Are Financially Illiterate


Credit card debt is an increasing problem for many Americans. It seems insurmountable, but it can be overcome. It just needs to be conquered one step at a time, and the first step is understanding how it works.

The Financial Literacy Quiz is a great tool for that. Created by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) as part of its National Financial Capability Study, the quiz is only 6 questions long. The resulting data has been used to gauge Americans’ financial capability since 2009. The quiz was updated in 2015 to include a question for credit card owners, screencapped below. If you’re curious, click the link above and take it the quiz yourself. It’ll only take five minutes.  

FINRA Question.jpg

Credit: FINRA

How do you feel after taking that? If the answer is “not good,” you are far from alone.

That survey was sent to 27,564 adults in all 50 states and Washington D.C. Approximately 500 adults per state answered the same questions you just did. 63% got half the questions wrong.

37% correctly answered four of the five returning questions, despite presumed familiarity with them (39% correct answers in 2012, and 42% correct answers in 2009).

The credit card debt answers weren’t reassuring, either. 33% of respondents answered “2 to 4 years,” which is correct. 29% thought it took “5 to 9 years” which is a much longer timeframe than it actually takes for interest to double. Given the close percentile ranking of those two answers, the study suggests that most Americans don’t understand the difference. If almost as many Americans think it takes over four times as long for interest rates to double than they actually do, it means they’re allowing vast amounts of debt to sneak up on them.

All that said, the assumed knowledge consumers were supposed to have to correctly answer the questions seems a bit niche. I’m not sure how I was supposed to learn “the rule of 72” as applied to calculating interest rate inflation, and I got all 6 questions right.

Still, the root cause for these results isn’t knowledge-based; it’s over-confidence. 76% of respondents rated themselves as having a “very high” understanding of financial knowledge, a sharp increase from 67% who said the same thing in 2009. “Americans tend to have positively biased self-perceptions of their financial knowledge,” the study reports. We also “have difficulty applying financial decision-making skills to real life situations,” despite claiming otherwise:

When asked how good they are at dealing with day-to-day financial matters (such as managing checking accounts and credit cards), a large majority of Americans rated themselves positively (81%). However, even among the 42% of respondents who gave themselves the highest score (7 on a 7-point scale), nearly three out of ten (29%) engage in costly credit card behaviors (paying the minimum payment, paying late fees, paying over the limit fees, or using the card for cash advances), 18% use non-bank borrowing methods, and 12% overdraw their checking account.

 Self-response chart.jpg

Credit: FINRA

The difference between presumed literacy and daily action is a disconnect between “perceptions and actions in day-to-day financial matters,” as the study describes it. It may actually be something else, according to psychology professor John D. Mayer: we think our future selves are completely separate people from our current selves. Worse still, we think our future selves are “this annoying other person who wants to prevent you from having fun in the present,” as the New York Times explains. Brain scans show different regions of the brain acting up whether we think about ourselves or other people; most people have the “other person” region light up when thinking of their future self.

Thankfully, this can be overcome. All you need to do is create a concrete image of who you want your future self to be. By focusing on that image, you can trick your brain into believing you’re the same person and help yourself achieve your long-term goals. As Mayer puts it, “those of us who focus more on what lies ahead often shape our lives in ways that make good sense for our future.” You can “encourage [yourself] to identify more with [your] future, to take on the stewardship of [your] present life and guide [yourself] to attain [your] goals.”

As illuminating as that information is, it doesn’t help you pay down credit card debt. Here’s Aaron Patzer, CEO of personal finance platform Mint.com, explaining your next steps:

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.