Individually Tailored Financial Education: What Research Tells Us Is Possible

Image credit: McKay Savage
Image credit: McKay Savage

In the past decade, a group of key empirical studies have argued that a lack of education and financial knowledge can lead individuals to miss opportunities to benefit from financial services. Some may fail to save enough for retirement, others may over-invest in risky assets, while still others miss out on tax advantages, fail to refinance costly mortgages, or even remain outside of the formal financial sector completely. These studies suggest that such behavior is based on the reality that making financial decisions has become increasingly complicated. At the same time, as a result of sweeping changes in the economic and demographic environments, individuals have become increasingly responsible for their own financial decisions and the consequences of such decisions over the long-term. Changes in public pension plans, an increase in life expectancy, and an increase in the cost of health insurance have placed on the individual the weight of momentous decisions such as whether to take out private retirement insurance, or how much to save. Easier access to credit, a general increase in the accessibility and complexity of products and services, and a number of other factors make a range of financial decisions more consequential – and harder.

Governments, financial services providers, and related stakeholders have responded accordingly in recent years developing financial education programs and initiatives, but the results have been mixed. The bulk of the evidence available confirms that, in general, the level of financial literacy throughout the world is very low, especially among the more vulnerable groups: those with very low education or income such as senior citizens, young women, and immigrants. The lack of financial literacy within these groups has proven to extend beyond economic effects and produce negative consequences on health, general well-being, and life satisfaction. Many of the programs that have been introduced were part of empirical studies that evaluated the impact of financial education programs on subsequent financial behavior. There are many such studies that show that financial education improves financial decision-making.

Nevertheless, a body of work has opened an intense debate over whether financial education and information can truly affect the financial behavior of individuals (see here, and here). In many cases, despite the availability of financial education, persistently high rates of debt and default, and low rates of saving and financial planning for retirement have been shown to persist. The empirical evidence obtained from surveys and experimental work often shows that individuals pay little attention to the information and that their capacity to process it is limited. Most of the empirical literature to-date indicates that traditional financial education – clients receiving information in a classroom style setting or through printed materials – does not necessarily translate into behavioral changes, especially in the short-term.

However, this research also showed opportunities in the way financial education information can be transmitted, particularly, methods that factor in psychological aspects such as individuals’ cognitive biases are key to transforming financial behavior over the long-term. The existing information is often excessive and tough for individuals to process completely. These studies concluded that in order to improve individuals’ financial decision-making ability, the financial decision-making process must be simplified, and barriers for processing information must be reduced. For example, this might take the form of narrowing the number of options available or delivering text messages that may influence behavior at key moments. The latter falls within a group of practices identified as behavioral “nudges” by organizations working with behavioral science, like ideas42. In short, current research indicates that with financial education, effectiveness is largely a question of taking into account the psychological makeup of individuals.

In fact, nowadays there is a broad consensus among psychological, social, and economic studies that cognitive characteristics affect social and economic behaviors. Notwithstanding this, these studies tend to conclude that cognitive characteristics only predict a small part of personal behavior. Non-cognitive or personal characteristics seem to have a role as significant as that of cognitive skills. B.W. Roberts, a leading personality psychologist, defines¹ personal characteristics as “the relatively enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reflect the tendency to respond in certain ways under certain circumstances.” Psychologists have sketched a relatively commonly-accepted taxonomy of personal characteristics known as the Big Five: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The papers² of J. Heckman, T. Kautz, and their research team (2013) review the recent evidence obtained by economists and personality psychologists regarding how cognitive and personal characteristics can be used to predict educational attainment, labor market success, health, criminality, and financial decisions.

Interestingly, these studies show there is hard evidence that both personality and cognitive characteristics are not “set in stone” and can change over the life cycle. Specifically, while genetics have a significant influence, parents, education, and social environments shape individuals, especially in the early years. However, there is some evidence that personality traits are more malleable than cognitive characteristics at later ages.

Financial education intervention programs should thus be based on these results. In particular, measuring personal characteristics makes it possible to identify people who tend to show weaker financial habits – high rates of debt, high default, low rates of long-term savings, etc. – and design tailored interventions. In addition, researchers conclude that most successful intervention programs are not as effective as the most successful early childhood programs. Consequently, as changing behaviors is not simple, teaching healthy financial behaviors from an early age allows the foundations to be laid for the development of strong lifelong money management.

Given the importance of these factors in effecting change, here are a few points that the research suggests would help financial education become more effective in supporting adults and older people.

  • Personalized counseling
  • Opportunities to gain experience by putting lessons into practice
  • A focus on small changes in financial behavior, taking into account the individual’s disposition to change
  • Programs that acknowledge the individual’s socioeconomic situation
  • Continuing and ongoing education, support, and motivation

As factors that influence behavior are increasingly understood, a major challenge remains to incorporate those features into the design and delivery of financial education programs.