Financial literacy matters. Here's what we need to do about it

The lack of financial understanding by consumers has been signaled as one of the main reasons behind savings and investing problems faced by many Americans. To that point, a variety of financial research and reports have made it clear that we, as a country, need to focus on financial literacy.

The TIAA Institute-GFLEC Personal Finance Index, or P-Fin Index, shows that only about half of Americans grasp the concepts behind managing debt, saving for retirement or insuring against major risks. This is the knowledge needed for savvy financial decision-making.

Too many people just don't have it, and that does not bode well for families, their communities or the country.

The index gauges overall personal finance knowledge and provides a nuanced analysis of eight areas where individuals routinely make financial decisions.

The latest findings are sobering for two reasons. First, financial knowledge is especially low where it is most needed: in the area of risk and risk management. Second, financial literacy is not improving over time.

"Financial literacy, it seems, does not improve much with experience." -Annamaria Lusardi, chair of economics & accountancy at George Washington University School of Business

This is the third time this annual survey has been conducted. There is little change from the 2017 results.

Even though we see little progress on the financial literacy front, the data does give us additional insight. It tells us that knowledge is low, even among older respondents and others who have already made financial decisions with far-reaching consequences.

Practice does not make perfect when it comes to money management. Financial literacy, it seems, does not improve much with experience.

There's something else that underscores why it is urgent that we address this challenge: Financial literacy is especially low among the young. And that's a major disconnect since they are about to make — or already have made — important and consequential financial decisions.

Many have invested in their education, taking on student loans, or they have contributed to retirement accounts. But they have done so without fully understanding the long-term implications.

Lagging behind

It's not just the young who are lagging behind.

There is also a financial literacy gender gap — and in 2019 it remains sizable.

While men correctly answered about 56% of the financial literacy questions, women only knew the answers to 47%. Not only does this gap stand tall, it is stubborn. It has persisted over time and surfaces for women in every age group.

When there is improvement in financial literacy, it is concentrated among those who started out with higher levels of financial knowledge, mostly men, or those with higher annual incomes ($100,000 or greater), leaving women further behind.

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The latest P-Fin survey also shows a clear link between financial knowledge and financial well-being, including the ability to handle a financial shock, such as unexpected medical bills or a needed car repair.

Financial well-being also means being on track to meet money goals in both the short and long term. Findings here tell us that people with higher financial literacy are on the path to more stable and secure financial futures.

In part, that's because the financially literate are much more likely to plan for retirement and stay on course. They're also better positioned to weather a shock. The government shutdown earlier this year was a stark reminder of what happens when you have no — or not enough — precautionary savings.

A call to action

The findings are a call to action.

We must improve everyone's financial literacy and especially for those who are farthest behind.

For starters, we should applaud states that have added financial education in their schools. We need to empower young people with knowledge before they make life-changing financial decisions so that they can begin their careers on a strong footing.

This is why in March we launched the Fast Lane website, a one-stop resource center for anyone interested in promoting much-needed financial education in school.

We also need to salute employers who have been proactive in offering financial wellness programs in the workplace. Those programs have a special advantage: They can be tailored to match the needs of the groups they serve, helping to bring up women, people with low income levels and others whose financial literacy trails. The financial wellness programs that we helped design are available on our webpage.

The financial wellness and education initiative of CNBC and Acorns is also an example of what media and financial firms can do together to raise both the awareness and the financial knowledge of Americans.

We need to focus on financial literacy because, pure and simple, it matters. Let's make this year's Financial Literacy Month a purposeful beginning so that next year we can actually celebrate in April.

Annamaria Lusardi is the Denit Trust Endowed Chair of Economics and Accountancy at the George Washington University School of Business. She is also a member of CNBC's Financial Wellness Advisory Council.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.