15 April 2024

Britain has a financial literacy problem

By Neil Rayner

Each April, the United States celebrates Financial Capability Month. Every year, this provides a month-long opportunity for the American government, workplaces and educators to highlight the importance of financial literacy to the country’s citizens.

In the UK, however, we do not even dedicate a single day to financial education – and it shows. Put bluntly, the UK has a financial literacy problem. Polling carried out last year by True Potential, the company I work for, found that 52% of 18- to 24-year-olds admitted to feeling confused about financial matters some or a lot of the time, with 79% saying they believed that higher numeracy skills would positively impact their ability to manage personal finances.

This is feedback we need to be listening to. I’m not saying we need to replicate the American approach, but we do need to replicate their enthusiasm for financial literacy, directing it into a programme of reforms that empower people to manage their money more effectively.

It is never too early to start. In February, Parliament’s Education Select Committee heard evidence about the obstacles faced by schools when it comes to implementing greater financial education in their curriculums. Solutions proposed included the teaching of financial literacy in primary schools and the appointment of a financial education coordinator in schools to ensure coherent coverage across subjects.

This evidence highlighted the urgent need for reform in our educational system. It’s unacceptable that financial education is not taught in primary schools, leaving generations with a foundational gap in their understanding of personal finance. And even though financial education is part of the secondary school curriculum, it is not given nearly enough attention.

The absence of education means that, without third-party interventions like our ‘On The Money’ campaign – which aims to tackle poor financial literacy by deploying True Potential’s financial advisers to schools to provide comprehensive personal finance lessons to students – financial illiteracy too often persists into adulthood.

Moreover, financial education shouldn’t only be confined to the classroom. It should extend to community centres, workplaces, and online platforms, reaching individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

This is a desire shared by the majority of the British population, with 63% wanting the government to improve the quality of mathematics education in schools, and 91% calling for an increased emphasis on practical, real-world applications of mathematics in education, such as budgeting and investing.

This should come as no surprise. Low levels of financial literacy do not just leave people confused over what to do with their savings. They have a detrimental effect on the financial security of countless individuals. Uncertainty over budgeting can leave people at risk of going into debt or regularly struggling to make ends meet.

It also means people are missing out on ways to make money. Our polling here found that 27% of people aren’t investing their personal finances into stocks and shares due to a lack of knowledge. With investing being one of the best ways to beat inflation, this leaves more than one fourth of the British population’s money vulnerable to a loss in value.

The ramifications of low levels of financial literacy are quantifiable. As we move forward, we should channel enthusiasm for improving financial literacy into tangible reforms. By prioritising financial education and ensuring its integration into all levels of learning and society, we can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their finances and pave the way for a more financially resilient and prosperous future for all.

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Neil Rayner is Head of Central Advice at True Potential Wealth Management.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.