OPINION: Improving levels of financial literacy is essential

Financial literacy handwritten in the notepad.

A new partnership between Lowell and the Centre for Social Justice aims to improve financial literacy - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Trenchant views and near-the-knuckle jokes have been a feature of men's locker rooms for as long as I can remember. For more than 50 years as I’ve participated in sports as varied as rugby, football, basketball, squash, running and swimming. I’ve discovered that – surprise, surprise –male changing rooms are not havens for hypersensitive and easily shocked souls.

Last Monday, however, following an invigorating early morning swim, I was chatting with a regular swimming club member, a semi-retired chap who we shall call John (not his real name). As we emerged from the showers, our conversation focused exclusively on the weekend’s football action.

As we stood drying ourselves, I asked what he was doing this week, expecting something like: “Well, I have to go to X this afternoon and I’m playing golf at Y on Thursday.” But instead, John’s manner shifted. He became uncomfortable and his head tilted downwards.

“I’m going back to work full-time today,” he said, visibly embarrassed. I said nothing but must have appeared surprised so he expanded further: “We’re skint. I don’t have any choice.”

John’s response, which he concluded with a shrug of the shoulders, was shocking. He is 63.

Lockdown has had an unexpected impact on his life. His employer cannot afford to keep him on, while he’s still three years adrift of receiving a state pension, a combination of circumstances made considerably worse by a lack of savings. At a time when he should be mulling over retirement plans, John and his wife are “feeling a serious financial pinch” and “urgently” need to generate income.

Being broke (and admitting it to a friend) is not a great situation for anyone, but I was astounded that well-mannered, well-spoken John needed to return to work full time in order to escape the financial mire.

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The following day, a report dropped into my email inbox. It was sent by Leeds-based Lowell, one of Europe’s largest credit management services companies. The report announced a partnership with the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), which plans to deliver a much-needed Financial Education Initiative.

The organisations commissioned a poll of 4,000 people which found that nearly half of UK adults (44%) want urgent help to manage their money. Respondents said that their household budgets would be in much better shape financially had they received guidance on how best to manage them. Unsurprisingly, the problems are particularly acute among young people with two thirds (68%) of 18-34-year-olds saying a lack of money management skills is a key factor in driving them into debt.

John Pears, Lowell’s UK chief executive, highlighted the extent of the problem: “Every day we see people in vulnerable situations due to a lack of ability to manage their finances,” he said. “With so many pressures on households with the rising cost of living, we want to help people better manage their money. That means understanding what is going wrong, understanding why people aren’t getting the education and support they need.”

Welcoming the Lowell-CSJ initiative, Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, recognises the importance of tackling this matter: “Financial education must be seen as a core element of the skills agenda and must be firmly embedded in our education system… to better prepare pupils for the future world of work.”

Ordinarily, our default reaction to anything a politician says is to oppose it, but Mr Halfon speaks a lot of sense when he advocates an improvement in financial literacy.

The Financial Education Initiative will consider the changing financial landscape, examine existing levels of financial literacy and review the levels of financial education currently on offer while identifying areas for improvement. It promises to be a difficult task.

As expected, the initiative’s primary thrust will focus on younger people. The sooner we ensure schoolchildren are financially literate, the better. Although help should also be available for young adults i.e. those aged 18-34.

A series of mid-life ‘financial MOTs’ has been mooted, to include the provision of financial education in the workplace. However, the over-50s currently careering towards retirement cannot be sidelined, especially if their sole source of later life income is the state pension. Nearly 20% of Britons aged over 55 have savings of less than £1,000. An estimated 6.5% of adults have no savings at all.

The Lowell-CSJ partnership plans to publish a report containing a series of recommendations in May. In the meantime, CSJ is inviting responses from organisations and individuals who have experience delivering financial education, as well as those with an interest in reshaping how the government addresses poor financial literacy. The deadline for submissions is Friday, February 11. Further details are available at www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk

The sooner we address inadequate levels of financial literacy, the sooner people like my friend John will no longer have to experience a reluctant return to work at a time in life when he should be contemplating nothing more taxing than playing with his grandchildren.

For more financial advice, check out Peter Sharkey’s regular blog, The Week In Numbers.