Anatomy of a Financial Literacy Program: How to Design around Financial Education Best Practices

Financial literacy has never been more important than today. In the wake of the Great Recession, many agencies, companies, and educators now recognize the urgency of helping people improve their personal finance capabilities. But among the vast array of programs that have cropped up in the past decade, few – if any – can claim to draw upon solid empirical evidence of best practices for financial education. This failure can be attributed in part to a shortage of rigorous research defining those financial education best practices. Recently, however, the National Financial Educators Council (NFEC) analyzed the growing evidence base and identified a foundation for designing effective financial literacy programming. This set of best practices was synthesized into the NFEC’s National Financial Capability Strategy report, and is summarized in this article.

According to the NFEC, to successfully raise financial competencies, programs must address three essential themes: education, awareness, and sustainability. Best practices for education consider not only content but context – that is, delivery methods, provider training, and evaluation tools are equally as important as the material being taught. Program awareness is critical because no program will be effective if it fails to reach its target audience. And sustainability is the key to maintaining program results over the long term.

Education

High-quality education is needed to bridge the widening gap between consumers and the increasingly complex financial environment. The NFEC analysis suggests some core skill areas that should be taught in an optimal financial education program. These core competencies include financial psychology (people’s relationships with money); savings and budgeting; account management; credit, loans and debt; career education; entrepreneurship; economic and government influences; risk management and insurance; and investing. Financial education can begin at any age level, from pre-kindergarten through mature adulthood.

Although evidence has yet to definitively outline a single best approach to delivering financial literacy programs, the NFEC has clarified some consistencies. Strong consensus indicates that learning about personal finance should be lifelong, starting with parents teaching young kids at home and extending on through retirement age. Education should sync with life stages, providing timely information when it’s most needed. For example, a lesson on credit and loans will be most useful to someone in the process of buying a car or home.

Relevance to life stage underscores the fact that good financial education must directly apply to real-world situations. Thus financial literacy curriculum and programs should be designed to give participants simple, practical tools they can readily use to make life decisions. Further, people need to be able to engage with the educational materials. That means the programming should be diverse and accessible to a wide range of ages, cultures, and learning styles.

Teachers have a profound impact on student learning and retention; that’s why quality of instruction is another crucial point to consider. Financial literacy instructors  not only should exhibit content proficiency, but also need the confidence and expertise to be engaging and effective teachers. In 2014 the NFEC released the first stringent set of professional standards that qualified financial educators should meet.

Financial literacy education must include an evaluation component to demonstrate program effectiveness. Pre-post tests just assessing participant knowledge are not enough. There’s a strong need to identify appropriate indicators of knowledge, behavior, and financial well-being and to standardize metrics for measuring those outcomes across programs.

 

Awareness

Reaching the target audiences who most need financial education requires raising awareness about the benefits of learning money skills and where to get such learning. Effectively building awareness requires marketing, media support, shared responsibility, and setting up financial educators as recognized leaders in the financial literacy space.

Marketing efforts might consist of branding, creative message strategies, and getting support from community groups. Strong collaborations should be forged with all types of media outlets. The best programs are ones that share the burden of responsibility across individuals, families, schools, the government, financial professionals, employers, and nonprofits. Grassroots advocacy can help build this shared responsibility model. Positioning instructors in the community as financial education experts also raises awareness and helps the movement.

Sustainability

Finally, financial literacy education should include an element of sustainability. Collaborations between community partners helps spread the costs of program delivery across a broad base. Advocacy assists to generate new funding streams. Publicizing results demonstrating program effectiveness will encourage long-term support for maintaining the program.

There are ways to create economies of scale for personal financial literacy programs, thus increasing their potential sustainability. Integrating financial education into already existing curricula, like high school math or English classes, is one example. Another method might be to leverage existing programs or events that offer materials that are easily customizable to be presented in a variety of venues and time frames.

This article recaps the best practices for financial literacy education laid out in the NFEC’s National Strategy report. Effective education, raising top-of-mind awareness, and scalable sustainability form the three pillars holding this strategy up. Anyone seeking to create a viable program should consider these ideas as best practices for financial education.