How the banks are winning now

For the first time, a report quantifies what we’re up against in the effort to equip ordinary people with the ability to deal with banks.

One of the long-standing arguments against teaching personal finance in school is that marketing messages promoting debt and consumerism quickly overwhelm any lessons kids might receive about credit management and frugality. So it’s all a waste of time.

No one knows for sure if that’s the case. But it’s sound theory, and at least now we know what we’re up against. For every $1 spent on financial education $25 is spent on financial marketing, according to a yearlong study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal watchdog agency.

Calling the spending difference “staggering,” director Richard Cordray said, “That means the majority of information consumers receive about financial products comes from a company trying to sell them something.”

This is hardly a surprise. Most families avoid talking about money at home and only in the last few years has there been any push to educate the public about personal finance through schools or the workplace. This financial knowledge gap clearly played a role in the recent recession—after consumers had loaded up on high-rate credit-card debt and signed up for ill-advised mortgages.

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The bureau found that the financial services industry spends $17 billion each year hawking financial products and services while government, nonprofits and financial institutions spend $670 million providing financial education. The biggest financial education chunk comes from nonprofits: $472 million. In what some have called the equivalent of beer companies’ don’t-drink-and-drive campaign, financial firms spend $31 million to educate their customers about general money issues.

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