Family Finance: Combating Financial Illiteracy

Julanne Hohbach

Let's face it, no one comes out of the womb knowing how to manage money. If you're lucky, your parents imparted financial wisdom on you while you were growing up and you've even stashed some cash in the bank. Or maybe you eschew financial planning—either because you don't understand it, or don't care to.

Once you have a family, however, there's a lot more riding on your paycheck. Ignorance is no longer an option (at least not a good one).

There are a lot of excuses for why people don't take the time to educate themselves about budgets, investing and other financial topics. They think they're bad at math. They're too busy and don't have the time. Their current fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach is working, so why mess with success?

But it isn't as hard as you think, at least if you start out taking baby steps.

Technology has revolutionized access to information, some of it good (staying in touch with friends around the world) and some of it not (getting hacked). But if you can sort the wheat from the chaff, thereare a lot of good financial resources online, including calculators for the math-averse that will figure out everything from simple percentages to compounded interest on your 401(k) account.

If you're looking to boost your financial acumen, here are six suggestions for getting started:

1.Set a budget. It's hard to fully understand your finances if you don't know where your money is going. Try a simple spreadsheet to track income and recurring expenses, then set a realistic goal for how much you can save from each paycheck. Even if it's just a small amount to start with, do it. Move that money into savings as soon as you get paid so it doesn't get spent on your next trip to Target or Starbucks.

2.Pick up a newspaper, or subscribe online, to familiarize yourself with financial issues. But don't start withThe Wall Street Journal. A general circulation publication will cover business news and the stock market in a style that caters to a broad base of readers, rather than MBA graduates and day traders.

3.Check with your bank and credit card providers. Many offer free educational resources to help customers learn about and manage their money. Some will even offer to meet and answer questions, no strings attached.

4.The internet is your friend, at least some of the time. There are numerous reputable financial education sites that are a goldmine of information on a wide array of topics. Just be sure to choose wisely, and be wary of anyone trying to sell you something in exchange for information.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants offers the excellent360 Degrees of Financial Literacy at Advice ranges from how to evaluate a job offer to talking to kids about money to retirement planning. A particularly nice feature is the ability to browse topics by age range, from tween to retiree. A companion site,Feed the Pig(, provides tips and tools specifically aimed at helping consumers save money.

Bankrate ( has a host of free online tools, calculators and articles covering topics from annuities to car- and home-buying and retirement.

Even Uncle Sam offers advice at Click the “Money and Credit” tab for resources on a variety of financial topics.

5.Invest in your 401(k) plan. Please. You don't have to understand the stock market. Almost every plan offers something known as target date funds. Pick the one with the year closest to when you'd like to retire, and the investment professionals do the rest. You'll pay more in fees for this managed approach, so read the fine print, but it's a good option for investors who are otherwise leery of retirement planning.

When a new statement arrives in your inbox, read it. Did your nest egg grow or did your fund(s) lose value? You don't have to understand every word, but pay attention to how your account is faring and watch for sharp downturns that might require reallocating assets.

6.Feeling more comfortable? Continue to gradually build your base of knowledge with more advanced information until you're confident in your money-management abilities. Remember, you don't need to know enough to be a Certified Financial Planner—just someone who can capably plan their family's financial future and weather a few bumps along the way.