The numbers are stark and disturbing: According to the National Council on Aging, one in three Americans over 65 lives with an income below 200% of the federal poverty level.
The explanation is multifold but begins with the equally stark revelation that Americans lack the basic knowledge to plan for a successful retirement. Globally, the United States ranks No. 1 in gross domestic product, but 14th in financial literacy.
Milken Institute data says that only 57% of adults in the U.S. are financially literate. In addition, 31% of American parents say they never talk to their children about finances, according to a CNBC & Acorns Invest In You Survey conducted by Momentive.
The financially underinformed come from all over the country, but major concentrations are in rural areas and in densely populated urban centers, according to a financial services veteran with Edward Jones.
Talking about this crisis in knowledge inspires Vanessa Okwuraiwe to speak urgently and with feeling.
Financial security is “a personal passion of mine, first and foremost. I didn’t come from a lot of money; however in our family we were taught the principles of good financial planning,’’ says Okwuraiwe, a principal with Edward Jones in St. Louis who has spent more than 35 years in financial services.
Online and in-school programs
Okwuraiwe is spokesperson for the Edward Jones’ Financial Fitness Program. The company began the online program in 2020 to teach Americans about personal finance. More than 400,000 have accessed the program through its website. Financial Fitness includes more than 40 online learning modules and is designed for independent, self-study. It is open to anyone interested in learning about personal finance.
In addition, Edward Jones has partnered with Everfi to design an in-school financial literacy curriculum for high school students. Edward Jones’ in-school, gamified learning program is taught by high school teachers, who are trained by Everfi on how to deliver and implement the content in the classrooms, Okwuraiwe said.
According to Everfi, in 2021 alone, 25 states introduced legislation to add personal finance education to their curriculum, but none of that legislation includes additional funding for school districts to provide the coursework. Through their partnerships with Everfi, many private companies like Edward Jones have stepped in to offer these personal finance programs for children whose ages vary from kindergarten through 12th grade, Everfi says.
Okwuraiwe says more than 1,000 schools, 53% of which are considered high need, have implemented the Edward Jones program, which has reached more than 47,000 high-school students.
Recent data showed that at the end of Edward Jones high school program, students who participated increased their personal finance knowledge by an average of 55%, she said. In addition, 63% of the students said they felt more confident about managing money. They were also more apt to make investments, and 54% said they felt more resilient and prepared to reach their long-term financial goals.
Data from the program shows that students from high-need areas, which often include intergenerational families, are sharing their knowledge with their parents. “No one is too old or too young to learn. We have seen younger people be interventionists in their homes, because information doesn’t always flow down. That is important because older generations still need to be educated,” says Okwuraiwe.
Expanding the message
Okwuraiwe says financial literacy is lacking in the United States because policymakers haven’t made it a national priority. Only 14 states require students to complete financial education courses to earn a high school degree.
Okwuraiwe says Edward Jones may expand its high school program to community colleges. “We did a pilot program with a St. Louis community college and found that there is a need at that level too,’’ she says.
Another personal finance effort by Edward Jones involves its advisors. Many go into classrooms to deliver budgeting workshops and career presentations, she said.
Queen Elizabeth’s influence
Okwuraiwe, who was born in London and lived in southeast London as a young child, moved with her family to Nigeria and spent most of her youth there. She returned to England to attend college. Okwuraiwe said she learned the value of saving as a child. She spoke with Rethinking65 the day after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled the British Empire for 70 years. Nigeria became independent from the empire in 1960.
“We were in London for her 25th anniversary, the Silver Jubilee. We were very young. Our dad bought us coins to celebrate the jubilee. We lined up on the street, waving the British flag. We loved the queen because she had been that stable force throughout our lives.’’
A foundation for longtime success
“We see the gap between people who have had financial education and those that don’t; it can be life changing,” she says. “The private sector can help by providing the resources and the tools that people need to weather the storm. This [Edward Jones] program provides a strong foundation for longtime success.’’
Edward Jones also has advisors from all 50 states who are members of its Grassroots Legislative Task Force, which has advocated for financial literacy.
“Private enterprise can always be a force for good but we can’t do it alone; multiple stakeholders must be part of it, too,” Okwuraiwe says. “We need to make sure that this happens on a national level so that it is a priority at home, where some adults may not have had this education. If we can drive it in the schools, then the testimonials from the students can be shared and in turn with stakeholders and then you’ve moved the needle!’’
In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.