Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Real Solution to the Economic Crisis

We’ve entered the New Year with a lot of unknowns. Will we be able to end this sticky war? Will we help not to prevent more violence in the future? Will we get out of this economic mess? Will our neighbors be able to keep their homes? Will our kids learn from our financial mistakes? How can we teach them?

I’m also excited about the prospects of what President-Elect Obama can do for our country, but I’ll admit, I’m more cautiously optimistic. What is the best out-of-the-box idea for getting us out of the economic hole we’ve dug for ourselves? I won’t pretend to be smart enough to come up with an idea to rival the top economists in the world. And I don’t think just one solution can solve such a mammoth problem. But I do feel that there is very little talk about the individual’s personal responsibility in all of this and we must address that part of this problem if we expect to resolve such a big issue.

What did YOU and I do to add to this crisis?
The politicians spent too much money on the war; the banks sold bad mortgages; the credit card companies loaned too much money; the big corporations paid too much compensation; the auto dealerships sold too many gas-guzzling SUV’s, and on and on. However, what did you and I do to contribute to the economic mess? Are we all just victims of a greedy system? Were we all forced to buy new cars every three years, remodel our kitchens based on a line of credit, and put a new flat screen TV on the Visa knowing that the bonus we hope to receive from our “secure” job next year will pay the bill?

I’ve heard no talk about what the new administration will make individuals do to help heal this economic wound. And each of us needs to take responsibility in helping to resolve our country’s economic crisis. We can’t just sit back and wait for some magical bail-out that will save our house or pay off our Mastercard. I have an idea to encourage every citizen to face their own financial responsibility to themselves and this country, which will in turn address some of the long-term concepts Americans have developed regarding the way we manage and understand money.

Don’t just send us money for nothing
I believe part of the current plan is to send out additional stimulus checks to the people hoping that this money will cause us all to spend, thus jump-starting our economy. Instead of just sending out free checks for nothing, insist that we learn something for this money the government’s giving us. Every American needs to take a financial education course and when complete they will receive a stimulus check. The cost of a nationwide financial education program will be just a fraction of what the whole stimulus program would cost.

Force every American to take a financial education course – every single one us regardless of age, education level, job title or economic status. From the upper class, wealthy, educated with trust funds, to the struggling working-class living paycheck to paycheck, we all lack many of the fundamentals needed to manage our money on a day-to-day basis.

If a program like this is going to work, we can’t continue to teach on topics like “What’s a good interest rate for an investment?” or “What’s the difference between a fixed mortgage and a variable-rate mortgage?” The key to this program is to make sure the financial education topics covered in this course are specifically related to budgeting, bill paying and managing money on a day-to day basis. These are topics not typically covered whenever anyone talks about personal finance, and the lack of knowledge in these areas, across all economic classes, is astounding.

Do the math and stay organized
There’s a lot of talk about how bad mortgages got us into the economic crisis we’re in today. But I believe there was a lot more going on then individuals being swindled by bad brokers.

Many people bought houses with mortgages they probably could afford, but then went out and used credit cards to re-carpet, furnish and remodel the homes, not realizing how the payments on the additional debt may cause problems when their adjustable rate mortgages increased. They never did the math to see what they could afford in the future.

Others believe that if they live in a certain kind of house in a certain kind of neighborhood they should automatically be able to afford a certain kind of lifestyle. So they buy the car, the flat screen TV, they eat in certain restaurants, buy certain brands of clothes and they’ve never sat down to actually do the math to figure out if they can afford everything they have.

And many others still just became overwhelmed with all the paperwork involved in managing all this new debt. If you buy or own a house the amount of mail alone that comes in on a weekly basis can be a chore to deal with. And if ignored you can believe there’s a water bill mixed in with all the credit card offers and junk mail that can get forgotten. How many people were prepared to be organized to handle paying their bills?

A different kind of financial education
There are many financial education programs that already exist, but most don’t even come close to teaching what the average American needs to know. Yes, it would be great to teach people how to understand the best investment for their 401(k)’s or the benefits of saving young for retirement years, but that’s not what people need to learn right now.

A financial education course should address forcing individuals to actually do the math to know what is going on in their personal financial life. It should teach topics like keeping all paperwork in one place and setting aside time each week (day?) to look at your bank balance and your bills due. It should address the skills needed to keep track of what’s going on in a checking account and to review your debt and have a clear picture of what’s owed and when.

A nationwide financial education program can be implemented through the internet, over the phone, through the mail, or in person. Similar programs have already been created through our bankruptcy program where people are required to take a credit course before filing. State’s Departments of Motor Vehicles have implemented nationwide driving tests that people have to take before getting a license. We could implement a nationwide financial education test that people can take, upon passing they would receive a $500 check, for example.

Most of the clients I deal with have money, good jobs and education and do not want to deal with looking at their daily financial situation until a crisis happens and they are forced to. Force them to take a course on how to budget and pay bills before they really need it.

Start Money Smart, Inc. has designed programs that address these exact issues and is prepared to teach them to adults as well as teens. For more information, go to