x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Teaching financial literacy may mean being cruel to be kind

Helping others understand personal finance is a hard task but any education method that gets people thinking about their finances, without the hard sell, is a positive thing

Illustration by Mathew Kurian
Illustration by Mathew Kurian

Someone either hadn’t been diligent when organising a financial education event I attended recently, or they had a healthy sense of humour.

The guy selected to showcase the importance of parents saving for their children’s tertiary education didn’t believe it was his duty to pay for his sons' learning beyond school.

The girl chosen to bring about the benefits of saving for retirement could herself walk away from ever having to work again – at the age of 30 something - because she was already financially independent.

Neither was the best case-study for the financial product they had been identified to bring to life. They have been taking part in an outreach exercise for a UAE bank to create a greater understanding of financial products on offer to expats.

Minor hiccups aside, it’s still a good thing the bank is undertaking this task. The cynic could say that this is marketing in a different guise. Indeed it could be, but again, anything that gets people thinking money versus life is good by me. As long as it’s not a hard ‘sell’ or misinformation.

Financial education is such a problem because we don’t know how to go about it effectively. We don’t know what works, what could make people change their behaviour and money-habits permanently. At best it is a life-long work-in-progress.

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Read more from Nima Abu Wardeh:

Don't get sucked into unnecessary spending - think about the opportunity cost involved

The magic formula that decides how early we retire

Protect your heart from the romance scammers

Beware of your smart device - it could be stealing your money

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One thing that definitely does not work in my opinion is institutions – banks - viewing financial literacy as something they can work on in isolation. Why would someone who wants to learn go to a bank’s website, when it is the banks that have confused them in the first place, or, worse, been involved in making them poorer.

This limiting outlook is what Elizabeth Linder, formerly of Facebook - she founded its politics and government division - was discussing at Oman's Future Foresight Forum, which I was at a couple of days ago.

These days she gets decision-makers to reimagine communication in a digital world.

She was talking about the time a European government put to her their solution to create their own version of Facebook as the 'best' way to share news with citizens.

She put to them that this was a very bad idea. It reflected old-school mentality - organisations deciding things on behalf of the people they serve, and only providing them with information that feeds into this mission.

We don’t work like that. We hack away at what we’re given, tweak, and create our own environment, one that reflects our needs and ways of doing things. Plus anyone pushing out information does not know what those on the receiving end actually want.

For something as huge, and vital, as financial enablement, group action is needed.

Which is why I like the plainly named European Platform for Financial Education - launched earlier this year. For that, nine European organisations came together to boost financial literacy in Europe - especially among young people and entrepreneurs.

With youth being labelled Generation Debt, there is a definite need to get them financially healthy.

A study out a couple of weeks ago in the UK delved into what it means to be exposed to modern day consumer temptation, and what youngsters understand about finance. It found that they are under intense pressure to rack up debt to buy gadgets and appear rich. I’m sure the same applies to the youth of the UAE. So, how do we deal with this?

Back to the father who believes it’s up to his children to make their own way once he’s done paying for their school years – his reasoning is that he didn’t get to do what he wanted. His father didn’t allow him to be a footballer, insisting instead that he become one of the traditional trinity: engineer, doctor or lawyer.

Being a father himself to young boys has him working on two fronts: to allow and embrace whatever his children want to become, while cutting them off financially once they finish school. He might be onto something. They will sink or swim depending on how they earn, and use money - and quickly.

A pretty harsh approach, especially if he hasn’t prepped them for it but it is the ultimate gift from parent to child. Getting them to deal with money.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on finding-nima.com