By Nick Erickson
The George Washington University’s Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center (GFLEC) has evolved from visionary ideas into a worldwide authority in its field in just a decade’s time. The center, which commemorated its 10-year anniversary this month, has turned research to action by measuring and working to raise financial literacy across the globe while taking advantage of its location in Washington, D.C. to collaborate with policymakers and practitioners.
Annamaria Lusardi, GFLEC’s founder and director, is proud of the progress the center has made and the resources it has developed as she looks forward to addressing the challenges of a changing world.
“Reimagining the future means aspiring toward a world where financial literacy is the norm. We want to see it implemented in schools and workplaces everywhere,” Dr. Lusardi said. “We want to be at the forefront of change; we think of ourselves as an incubator of ideas.”
GFLEC has aimed to do that since Dr. Lusardi, a university professor at GW and director of Italy’s Financial Education Committee, identified an urgent need in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. She saw through data that people—young people especially—were buying homes, investing in pensions and paying for education with minimal knowledge of the financial system. As markets plummeted, those individuals fell behind.
She sought to fix it, noting how people were navigating their lives with little confidence in their financial decision making. In fact, research from GFLEC would uncover that 60% of Americans felt anxious when thinking about their personal finances, 50% reported feeling stressed when discussing their personal finances and 55% of employees were worried about running out of money in retirement.
While the center has provided scores of data to improve financial literacy, Dr. Lusardi emphasized a golden rule when it comes to money and how to maximize it.
“Our research shows that ignorance in finance is not bliss,” Dr. Lusardi said. “You build wealth by saving early, saving constantly and investing wisely.”
The center was created to translate academic research to the general public. One example is the creation of the “Big Three” and “Big Five” question sets that measure an individual’s financial literacy. They have been used by the U.S. National Financial Capability Study and in more than 20 countries around the world.
"You build wealth by saving early, saving constantly and investing wisely."
Because promoting financial literacy is particularly important to the people who will be living in an unknown future, GFLEC has studied the habits of millennials and Generation Z. Young adults will face financial challenges associated with climbing life expectancy, Dr. Lusardi said. If a person works for roughly 40 years, but also has a 40-year retirement, they will have to save almost 50 percent of their income to support themselves after they stop working.
Dr. Lusardi also noted that, in the evolving technical world, many future jobs have not yet been invented. She advised students to invest not just in financial education, but also in skills and training to stay ahead.
“The decisions students make today are very consequential,” said Dr. Lusardi, who will be teaching personal finance courses at GW this spring. “It’s very important for young people to start off on the right footing.”
GFLEC has also examined inequities in race, gender and ethnicity. The center’s research showed that minority groups scored lower on financial literacy quizzes and spent more time thinking and worrying about their personal financial situations than white Americans. Data also indicated a sharp gender difference in financial literacy not just in the U.S., but around the world.
The center has encouraged financial education in schools to close those gaps as well as workplace financial wellness programs, which GFLEC will continue to build upon in the decades to come.
“We want to promote programs for women, as well as for minorities and vulnerable groups. They cannot get left behind,” Dr. Lusardi said. “We will all benefit from a society where everybody makes good financial decisions.”
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance, Dr. Lusardi said. Personal finance is, well, personal. GFLEC seeks to provides individuals with the knowledge to make decisions that are appropriate for them, not just the general public. Below are Dr. Lusardi’s five tips for young people to get ahead as they enter the financial world:
- Take good care of your finances. Put aside 10 to 15 minutes each week or month to check your expenses. You go to the gym to take care of your physical health, she said. Take the same approach in taking care of your finances.
- Aim to have the best possible FICO score. This is your GPA of personal finances. Try to be as disciplined as possible. Pay your credit card bills, auto loans and other bills on time. Get a credit card early to start building your score.
- Build emergency savings. Sometimes, life just happens, whether it's an unexpected trip to the doctor or a car breaking down. Don’t depend on a credit card and pay high interest. Be prepared.
- Take advantage of employer matching. Choose to contribute the maximum amount to your 401K that your employer will match. It’s tax-free, and, with the match, the return is higher than returns offered by the stock market.
- Invest as soon as possible. Not just in finances, but also in new skills. The future will bring new jobs. Start building a foundation now.
Help drive change and improve financial literacy and financial well-being worldwide by supporting GFLEC on its 10th anniversary.