Back in the middle of the pandemic, my then 91-year-old mother was presented with two options—one a specialist recommended, the other favored by her trusted general practice physician. And of course, it was to be…her decision.
This kind of thing happens all the time in the medical field where such things often seem as much art as science, with a myriad of factors to consider, not the least of which is the skill and experience of the medical professionals putting forth their recommendations. Not that it’s limited to life-and-death decisions. Indeed, it’s the kind of decision with which we’re often presented; when that annual auto inspection detects a hitherto undetected major repair need, when that leaky toilet repair uncovers some long-standing, but unobserved water damage, when that last minute call to fix a water heater or air conditioner reveals that it might—but might not—last the season. Those things routinely involve experts of one sort or another turning to us relative (or complete) amateurs, presenting us with complicated choices that often involve a complex weighing of factors we may not even understand. And yet we do.
Or, if you’re a 401(k) participant these days, we just do it for you.
But don’t retirement plan participants need to have some idea about what’s going on with their retirement savings? In a “do-it-for-you” default enrollment/investment paradigm, aren’t we basically creating a generation that simply trusts and accepts the decisions of their “betters”—who, to be honest, aren’t always deserving of that trust. Said another way, where’s the “check engine” light for your 401(k) account?
That brings me to the continued focus of the need for “financial literacy.” Long touted as something of a panacea for the apparent shortcomings of our education system when it comes to practical financial applications, I remain skeptical.[i] Not that it wouldn’t be nice to have participants who had a basic appreciation for the markets, the impact of fees, the balance between equity and fixed income, and perhaps even a fundamental understanding of what a mutual fund is. But I think financial “literacy”—though its definition is surely fluid—is perhaps a higher bar than needed for most.
I still think effective financial education begins early, and at home. Not about the markets, perhaps—but the basics of a budget, the discipline of an allowance—better still, one anchored on household obligations.[ii]
That said, a recent acquaintance has suggested what I think is an outstanding idea—and perhaps a way to not only expand the knowledge of the current generation of savers, but to build for the future; take that financial literacy training you may already be doing for your 401(k) clients—and expand it (in a separate session) to include…their kids!
Odds are you’ll not only provide valuable insights to that next generation of savers—but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you find that help fulfill their “need” to know as well!
What do you think?