Out of these three questions measuring basic financial knowledge, the average respondent could answer only 1.8 correctly—and only a quarter got all three right. (Answers are at the bottom of this story.)
(1) Do you think that the following statement is true or false? Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.
(2) Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow: More than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102?
(3) Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?
Perhaps most troubling was what the research showed about how respondents have actually been managing their money. The average young person surveyed showed responsible behavior in only one of three categories: Paying off debts on time, budgeting and living within one's means, and having any retirement savings at all. Only 2% of all respondents showed responsible behavior in all three categories.
Furthermore, the study—led by SDSU professors Ning Tang, Andrew Baker, and Paula Peter—found that there was little to no effect of financial knowledge on financial behavior. That is, young people manage money poorly, even when they know better.
But there is hope for America's youth, says Tang.
"Our findings suggest that if you want to improve your own financial behavior, the best thing you can do is be open to the influences of others," says Tang.
Though the study did not examine the influence of peers, its results suggest both family and financial professionals could play an important role in improving young people's financial habits. The researchers found that being close with parents was correlated with better money management among women—and that higher self-reported levels of being "thorough" and "careful" was correlated with better financial behavior among men. Among both sexes, higher self-reported levels of being "self-disciplined" was correlated with better money habits.
That suggests educators and financial planners should focus on getting young people to be more self-aware in general and more motivated to improve their organizational habits across the board—not just when it comes to finances, says Tang.
"It can be helpful just to be more aware of your own psychological barriers," she says.
One thing the study did not explore much is the cause of gender differences in the results. For example, the authors did not control for whether parents tend to treat daughters differently than sons.
And the answers to the questions above? They are: (1) false; (2) more than $102; and (3) less than today.