In 2009, I saw an ad for a job at a credit union in Vermont to “increase financial literacy among Vermont high school students.” Although I was very good at living off of the tiny paychecks of a freelance journalist, I had no formal background in finance – as evidenced by the fact that the first thing I did was Wikipedia “Financial Literacy.” But I needed a job, and they needed…someone. Apparently me! And the rest is history.
As it happens, financial literacy just means managing money. At the time, I thought, Why don’t they just call it that? After working for the credit union for a couple years, and then starting a career as a financial public speaker, you can imagine I’ve run into all kinds of terms that also just mean managing money. Let me boil a few down for you:
Financial literacy, according to The President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, is defined as “the ability to use knowledge and skills to manage financial resources effectively for a lifetime of financial well-being.”
Financial capability, according to the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, considers not just individual financial knowledge and skills, but also access to and engagement with financial institutions, products, and markets.
Financial well-being, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is defined as having financial security and financial freedom of choice, in the present and in the future. More specifically, you have financial well-being when you:
- Have control over day-to-day, month-to-month finances.
- Have the capacity to absorb a financial shock.
- Are on track to meet your financial goals.
- Have the financial freedom to make the choices that allow you to enjoy life.
Whichever of these terms strikes your fancy, what they’re attempting to articulate and measure is an important evolution in financial education: to go beyond simply relaying information to providing tools, structure, support, and guidance for one of the most complex, emotionally loaded, and high-stakes areas of a person’s life.
It reminds me of this old Bob Newhart sketch where he plays a therapist. Any time a client asks for help with an unhealthy behavior, Bob thinks for a minute and says, “Stop it!” When they react in confusion, he looks exasperated. “What don’t you get? Stop it!”
I think we’d all be glad to live in a world where you could just tell other people what to change and they’d do it. But it doesn’t work that way.
Real change comes from within, when the person is ready to accept their own unhelpful behaviors and choose, on their own, to change. This means they need more nurturing, practice, and encouragement and fewer edicts and orders. This, as you might imagine, is a longer, more involved process.
Still, too often in financial education, people receive the information they think they need, and then wonder why they can’t successfully apply it. It’s because the process of change requires tools far more nuanced and effective than “Stop it!”
My work as a financial educator is to connect with the whole person – not just offering up information, but giving people the knowledge and agency to implement these skills for themselves.
Whether you practice or seek out FL, FW, or FC, remember to have patience. Armed with the right information, and buoyed by the right support, you will make the changes you need for a happy, abundant, financially sound life.
Colin Ryan, CPFC is the author of “A Comedic Guide to Money,” has been featured everywhere from NPR to The Moth Radio Hour, and speaks all over the country.