When it pays to take a personal finance course

Personal Finance

If you want to improve your financial know-how, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

From short online tutorials to extensive in-person bootcamps, the number of “Money 101” classes has ballooned since the Great Recession.

And yet, when it comes to financial literacy, Americans are still falling far short.

According to a survey by the Global Finance Literacy Excellence Center, 63% of Americans are considered financially illiterate.

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Studies show that students who are required to take personal finance courses starting from a young age have better average credit scores and lower debt delinquency rates as young adults, according to data from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation, which seeks to promote financial education.

In addition, a report by the Brookings Institution found that teenage financial literacy is positively correlated with asset accumulation and net worth by age 25.

But for adults out of high school and college, finding a quality personal finance class can be harder than learning to balance a checkbook.

To that end, Billy Hensley, the president and CEO of National Endowment for Financial Education, or NEFE, and a member of the CNBC Financial Wellness Advisory Council, offers the following guidelines for successful learning.

  1. Look for a well-trained educator. A good teacher should not only understand the topic but be certified and experienced in the field, Hensley said.
  2. Check the financial education materials. From saving to investing, the course work should be vetted and created by experts in each area.
  3. Stick with topics that are timely. Find a course that suits your age and needs, Hensley said. For example, if you are just starting out, look for classes that focus on setting up a 401(k) plan or buying a house so you can readily apply what you have learned in class to your real life.
  4. Keep it relevant. Similarly, the subjects covered in class should be appropriate to your level of knowledge. “You are not going to talk to seventh graders about mutual fund diversification but you can talk about risk when managing money,” Hensley said.
  5. Evaluate results. Look for programs and classes that share their outcomes, he advised. “Do folks that take the class have increased savings or a higher credit score? You want to make sure that it works,” Hensley said.

Further, there are plenty of course offerings that can be taken in-person or online, and one method is not necessarily better than the other. “Both can be effective,” Hensley said — as long as the class includes thoughtful instruction and engaging content.

And it doesn’t have to cost a dime, either. “There are a lot of free options that are high-quality,” Hensley said.

Keep in mind that some offerings are “free for now,” he added, which means they may try to sell you a financial service down the road.

That’s not necessarily a red flag, Hensley cautioned. “Approach that with any level of skepticism that’s needed.”

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If you are in doubt, talk to a financial planner who can weigh in or point you in the right direction.

Or, look at continuing education programs in your area. “That’s a good place to start,” Hensley said.

NEFE offers a free financial planning program for high school students, with resources for parents as well as a CashCourse for college-aged students and a Smart About Money program for adult learners.

The nonprofit Next Gen offers personal finance workshops and longer courses for students starting as early as middle school.

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