It will be interesting to see how people reflect on this economic crisis in years to come. Will it be remembered for the trillions of dollars the government will likely throw at the problem before it's over? Will it be remembered for the failures of financial industry giants like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers? Will it be remembered as the era in which millions of people lost their homes due to the predatory practices of some unscrupulous lenders? Will it be the defining issue for a president past or future?
As a financial journalist, I've heard many of my colleagues speculate on how this will play out, and how it will be remembered. Quite frankly, it's what I'm not hearing that is making me nervous. If we are not looking back on this period in our history as the moment we tackled the financial-illiteracy crisis in this country once and for all, we will no doubt face more hard times down the road.
The Heart of the Matter
At its heart, this financial crisis is a story of financial illiteracy: People signed up for mortgages they did not understand. They did not understand how their debt levels would change and how quickly that would happen.
A survey commissioned by Bankrate.com found that a quarter of the respondents didn't even know what kind of mortgage they had. The Consumer Federation of America found that more than 40 percent of participants in a survey it commissioned did not know that maxing out a credit card lowered their credit score.
Even worse, a survey conducted in part by Roper Public Affairs and Media found that 57 percent of this country's late-paying mortgage borrowers don't know their lenders may offer alternatives to help them avoid foreclosure.
Borrowers weren't the only ones in the dark. Washington did not understand the complex financial instruments Wall Street created to capitalize on our mortgage debt—right under Uncle Sam's unwatchful and unregulating eye. And many of the financiers who created the securities did not understand the tangled, leveraged web that they were weaving.
As we watch lawmakers and financiers around the globe struggle to throw money at the credit markets so that companies that rely on them to borrow money can to do things like pay their employees, turn on their lights, and honor their loans, etc., it's easy to point fingers and wonder how things got off course.
Keep in mind that while the system took advantage through things like predatory loans and "Wild West" trading tactics, it was our individual choices about spending and debt that really got this ball rolling…Our individual choices to remain blissfully ignorant about our personal finances as long as we could have the things we wanted to have.
A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way
I was recently talking to a group of high school seniors at a girl's school in Harlem in Manhattan. I'll never forget how quickly our discussion about credit cards changed their attitudes about debt.
Alarmed by recent knowledge that about a third of all high school students have credit cards, and many are carrying at least $1,000 in debt, I asked these girls what they thought about credit and debt.
For the most part, they thought credit cards were the greatest thing in the world, amazed that they could rack up big balances and pay them off by just paying that minimum number. (I'm not joking.) I showed them on the Internet what paying just the minimum will cost them in money and time, and they were appalled. I also told them how credit card balances affect something called our credit score.
High school seniors are into their futures, their careers, getting their lives started. When I told them that many companies look at their credit score to help determine if they should hire them, well, the only way I can describe it is to say that these girls "freaked out." It didn't take them long to realize that how we manage our credit may affect people's perceptions of how we conduct different aspects of our lives, including our work ethic.
These girls got their first lesson in how important it is to make sure our financial choices are in line with our values. Prior to my talk, no one had talked to them about money—at home or at school.
It's not just young people who benefit from just a small amount of guidance. A survey released by non-profit financial literacy giant Operation HOPE found that adults who participated in financial-literacy programs saw an average 68-point jump in their credit scores. That means lower interest rates on everything from credit cards to mortgages.
Folks are Getting the Message
The link between our financial woes and financial illiteracy finally seems to be gaining some traction. This year, the Bush administration created the President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, the first time an entity has been charged with creating policies surrounding financial literacy. They are pushing the public and private sector to do things like make financial education mandatory in schools and create counseling and literacy programs for adults.
The Internet, TV, newspapers and the growing number of financial-counseling programs—some even required before you can get a mortgage in certain states—make financial illiteracy no longer acceptable. Check with your bank, employer, credit bureau, etc., about other options as well.
Now that financial literacy is gaining a spotlight, we must expand our dialogue to include more than just dollars and cents. There are other forces at play in our financial experience. Things like race. An African American earning $100,000 a year with a good credit rating will likely get a higher interest rate on a mortgage than a white person earning $35,000 with a lower credit rating. Gender also plays a role. Single women are the fastest growing group of new homeowners and tend to have better credit ratings than men, yet they are three times more likely to get targeted for a subprime loan.
It is easier, in many ways, to dissect these issues with high school students. They are young and not afraid to say they don't understand the dynamics. It's harder for adults, and that fear of asking questions has exacerbated this crisis for many Americans. But there is still time to turn things around. When we look back on this era, we should be able to think of it as the time we finally got smart about our money.
Stacey Tisdale is a veteran on-air financial journalist. She's the author of "The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money."