On Monday, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans recommended including financial education in curricula as early as in pre-kindergarten. Joining 17 other states, Florida is in the process of introducing financial-literacy education for all high-school students. These programs will clearly create a positive impact on young generations. However, even with these efforts, we have a daunting task to reduce our widespread financial illiteracy.
During the financial crisis in 2008, about 40 percent of American households lived beyond their means.
Six years later, however, even after many serious lessons were learned, America is still faced with significant challenges on personal finances. In June 2013, Bankrate.com released survey results which stated that “Roughly three-quarters [76 percent] of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to no emergency savings.” Among them, 50 percent of those surveyed have less than a three-month cushion to cover a job loss, a medical emergency or other unexpected events, and 27 percent have no savings at all. In October 2013, the Washington Post reported that “most [three in five] Americans are accumulating debt faster than they are saving for retirement.”
There are a few reasons why our irresponsible borrow-to-spend habit is deeply rooted. First, our failing math education is to be blamed, because too many adults cannot understand the compounding interests of their debt. The second is our consumerism-driven culture. Manufacturers frequently introduce cutting-edge gadgets and new fashion products to lure consumers. Our retailers regularly mislead consumers by falsely alleging, “the more you buy, the more you save.”
More important, we have an instant gratification disorder in our society, as suggested recently by Tiger Mom Amy Chua, in her new book, “The Triple Package.” I have personally met many families who lost their homes simply because they spend all they earn each month and do not hesitate to take high-interest debt.
Last May, business-writer Michele Lerner reported my story about my student life 20 years ago. I had to stay in a basement and buy the cheapest groceries in order to save money to bring my wife to America. One reader left the following comment: “To be so frugal with oneself is sad. We [are] only here for a short period of time and should leave this world having great memories of wonderful experiences we have had.”
This reader does not realize that many Chinese/Asian-Americans follow Confucian wisdoms, wisely manage their money and have achieved impressive results. By being thrifty when they do not have a lot of money, they develop a good habit of not squandering money down the road. By avoiding high-interest debt, they contribute most of their income back to the family, instead of giving it to Wall Street bankers.
By taking a long view of money management, they have more savings for family emergencies, retirement and children’s education. With a good amount of saving and credit history, many working-class Chinese/Asian-Americans were able to invest in real estate during the financial crisis and accumulate more wealth. On June 4, 2013, Wells Fargo released a survey report that demonstrates that Chinese-Americans manage their money better and are more confident about their current and future financial situation compared to the general U.S. population.
How can Chinese-Americans resist the influences of consumerism? It is largely because Chinese culture treats thrift and saving money as a religion. For example, during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, Chinese families always serve a dish of fish. This is not because fish is healthier or tastier, but because it is a symbol of wise money management. The Chinese pronunciation of fish — “Yu” — is the same pronunciation of “surplus.” Having a fish dish on the New Year’s Eve dining table reminds every family member to save, and to have surplus for the following years.
In order to win this uphill battle of money management, financial literacy for children is just a good first step. Society needs to value thrift and saving money again and treat them as a religion, regardless if they are called Confucian wisdom on money management or Americans’ traditional Protestant virtue.
This Oped was first published on March 17th, 2014 by Orlando Sentinel.