Twenty years is a large chunk of anyone’s life – even if there is a chance that we could live to 100. After writing for and later editing this publication for that number of years, it is worth taking stock, particularly in a country where a sophisticated and lucrative financial services industry serves a population with a low level of financial literacy.
Personal Finance has had three main aims: to inform, to expose, and to campaign so that you get a fair deal when growing and protecting your wealth.
We’ve published some great exposés, some of which have resulted in the perpetrators being fined or jailed, in changes to financial regulation, and, in some cases, to threats and court cases against us.
We have done much to inform ourselves and you about good and bad practices, and we have used these pages to persevere with our calls for change.
Over the past 20 years, the handwritten letters and personal calls we used to receive from you alerting us to unsavoury practices, or thanking us for preventing a financial disaster, have been replaced with emails, Facebook posts and tweets. The feedback is a hugely rewarding part of this job, and makes the hard work behind delivering easy-to-read articles worthwhile.
But have our efforts been enough?
The Human Sciences Research Council’s 2015 South African social attitudes survey on financial literacy, prepared for the Financial Services Board and which involved just less than 3 000 South Africans being interviewed about their financial habits, has some encouraging statistics when it comes to budgeting (59 percent do), carefully considering whether they can afford something (57 percent do) and researching financial products before buying or investing (52 percent say they do).
But, discouragingly, the report says only a quarter (27 percent) of South Africans always set long-term financial goals and work hard to achieve them, while 29 percent rarely or never do.
Asked how long they could survive without borrowing money or moving house if their household lost its main source of income, 15 percent said less than a week. More than 40 percent would survive between a week and a month, only 11 percent said at least three months, and 13 percent said they could last for six months or more.
Asked if they could cover a major expense without borrowing money or asking friends and family for help, about 22 percent said they could.
“This indicates that many South Africans live on the edge financially, unable to respond to a major expense, making them vulnerable to any sudden crisis in their finances,” the report says.
Almost half (48 percent) of those questioned reported that, in the year before the interview, they had experienced a situation where their income did not cover their cost of living.
Yet many companies, financial services industry bodies, non-government organisations (NGOs), regulators and publications like Personal Finance promote financial literacy.
The Washington Post recently focused on the debate about the effectiveness of financial literacy in two articles on whether financial skills should be taught to college students.
Annamaria Lusardi, Denit Trust chair of economics and accountancy at the George Washington University School of Business, argued that personal financial knowledge is essential for you to survive and thrive in today’s financial environment, and that if students were forced to take these courses, it would fill the gap.
But Lauren Willis, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, countered that there is a lack of evidence that financial literacy courses are effective. She says these courses often provide information about specific products, but fail to provide context so you can evaluate these products.
“One recent study, for instance, found that, after receiving personal-finance training, participants knew more about the availability of products but couldn’t determine the lowest-cost loan or identify the best savings or insurance product, even when offered cash prizes for the correct answers.”
Willis says financial offerings change too quickly for regulators to keep up, never mind educators.
“In addition, compared with the salesperson across the table, consumers will never be as knowledgeable about financial products and services, or about the psychological manoeuvring with which they can be sold,” Willis wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Personal Finance is 21 years old this year, and, yes, we have made many more people alive to the need to take care of their finances and simultaneously to be mindful of the manoeuvring.
But more needs to be done. Changes in the regulation of financial services – the introduction of separate prudential and market conduct authorities and the move to a principles-based regulation in terms of which financial services providers will be expected to treat you fairly – will help.
But, as Willis argues, government policies affecting employment, health care and benefits have a vastly greater effect than personal financial acumen on ordinary people’s financial health.
She says the main causes of financial problems are hardship and fraud, not poor money management. Credit cards, payday loans and overdrafts are used as band aids in emergencies, and the high interest rates on these products deepen the financial wounds.
And she adds, although many players in the financial services industry support financial literacy initiatives, they profit when we, as consumers, make poor financial choices – for example, buying overpriced credit insurance, paying penalty fees and interest, investing in high-fee unit trust funds, and so on.
Willis is right. Financial literacy is all very well and good, but on its own it won’t make South Africans financially well. The industry, regulators, industry bodies, NGOs and the media have much more to do.
This is my final article for this publication, but not the end of my role in informing and educating consumers.
I am sad to take leave of Personal Finance but proud of what we have achieved and hugely grateful for the input that you, the readers, and our sources, have provided to enrich our articles. I also go with a new resolve about the media’s role in the future of our financial well-being.