Chatting about Financial Wellness

Do you hear the buzz? The conversation is getting louder. What started a few years ago as a murmur among a few is turning into excited dialogue and debate! I'm at the National Summit on Collegiate Financial Wellness and its energizing. Today's conversations centered on financial literacy: what is it and how can it be increased?

We talked about the need to reach out to young adults before they make decisions about student loans that will impact their lives for years. We also debated whether financial literacy is the same as financial well-being, or do we need more than just basic financial knowledge for people to effectively manage their finances these days.

You may wonder why over 280 people would meet in Columbus Ohio to talk about this. We're driven by current student loan debt loads and research that raises concern about the long-term financial effects on net worth. "Seven in 10 seniors (69%) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower," reports the Institute for College Access and Success.

The Federal Reserve Board's latest "Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households" discusses the financial well-being of families in 2015, and it's alarming.

  • Thirty-one percent of non-retired respondents have no retirement savings or pension, including 27% of non-retired respondents age 60 or older.
  • Forty-six percent of adults say they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

In 2010 a national conversation began with the U.S. Department of Treasury's Financial Literacy and Education Commission's call to comment on five core financial concepts to define the crucial elements of financial education. This conversation has continued and produced several useful consumer products such as the website.

Along with helpful consumer tools, these conversations help financial educators like myself be more effective. For example, the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau recently released a Financial Well-Being Scale that I will use to measure whether or not people who participate in educational programs see an improvement in their financial well-being. Evaluation is important in order to not waste time and money resources.

Rather than measuring specific financial behaviors, like whether or not someone balances their checkbook or creates a budget, the Financial Well-Being Scale measures people's financial security and overall sense of financial well-being by asking people to respond to statements such as:

  • I could handle a major unexpected expense;
  • My finances control my life; and
  • I have money left over at the end of the month.
University of Illinois Extension will use this new Financial Well-Being Scale to measure the effectiveness of our new curriculum, All My Money: Change for the Better, due to be released this fall.

Would you like a way to measure your financial well-being? One way is to determine your net worth now, and then again in a year. I do this once a year as an annual check-up. Begin by listing all your assets (everything you own). Don't forget your checking account balance, retirement account value, as well as the market value of your car and your home.

Next, list what you owe – your liabilities. Credit card balances and installment loans (such as for furniture or car) are examples of liabilities. Home mortgage principle another liability. The last step is to calculate the difference between your assets and your liabilities.

You want your assets to be larger than your liabilities. However, students and people starting out in life may have a negative net worth. In the long-run, you want to make financial choices to help your net worth grow.