What do inner-city families trying to save $500 for emergencies have in common with trust-fund heirs? Their common interest, it turns out, is financial literacy.

Five years ago, I was on the Dartmouth College campus for a research conference on household financial literacy in America. It was a fine, sun-dappled day in May, as you can only find in New England. I recall hearing a panel with speakers from two extremes of the wealth spectrum. A consumer group was helping poor inner-city households save $500—in the event a car or refrigerator broke down, or in case of a short period of unemployment. Meanwhile, a financial adviser spoke of the difficulty of educating young heirs about the complexities of managing the family fortune.

The first speaker was concerned with the basics of budgeting and saving—with eking out some money for an emergency reserve, even among families that could barely pay the rent. The second was focused on, essentially, the trials and tribulations of the privileged. Would the next generation know how to manage the family’s wealth? Or would the assets soon be dissipated through spendthrift money habits, poor investment choices, and inadequate oversight of advisers?

The FINRA Foundation has published a new assessment of financial literacy in the U.S.—a benchmark publication in this area, one they hope to repeat in the future. The report (see the executive summary) does a good job of laying out the challenges.

In today’s world, low-income households need to avoid egregious debt traps (like payday loans) while learning how to build some financial cushion and make judicious use of debt. Middle-class households need to navigate home loans and college savings and retirement plans. Upper-income households face complex money management and tax issues; while served by an overabundance of financial advisers, they still have to avoid bad and costly advice.

From payday loans to Bernie Madoff scandals, financial tricks abound, no matter how affluent or educated the household. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the question of improving financial literacy becomes all the more pressing. The focus in Washington is on the regulatory element, which has an important but more of a supervisory role to play. Some people talk about the schools helping to address the problem, although middle- and high-school curriculums are already jammed. It’s also not clear whether classes taken at, say, age 16 have an impact when you need to buy a house at age 30. What seems clear is that consumers and financial institutions—the marketplace—will need to do most of the heavy lifting in this area. The media can help, too.

Another bright spot is, paradoxically, your neighbors. The FINRA report finds meaningful large groups of Americans who are doing the right thing—educating themselves about money matters, avoiding debt traps, saving for the future. Maybe the real opportunity here is to find a smart (but not overconfident) neighbor who is managing her money affairs sensibly, and learn from her.

Whether you are a member of a poor family in the inner city or a trust fund scion, it may be that the key to the financial literacy challenge is to find the right role model—just down the hall or around the corner—someone whom you can trust and someone who can set you straight.

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