Financial illiteracy is all too common

"I have a college degree, but you know, I just don't know anything aboutmortgages and what's the right thing to do."

When I heard a South Florida home buyer say this the other day, it sounded so familiar. I hear that sentiment so often, not just about mortgages, but about life insurance, investments, annuities, 401 (k)s and mutual funds.

Plenty of smart, conscientious people don't have a great understanding of personal finance, of financial products and how they work.

In fact, most people don't, judging by a handful of surveys, including the first National Financial Literacy Challenge, conducted last year among 46,000 high school students. Average score: 56 out of 100. That's an F.

I suspect the findings also apply to lots of post-high school grads.

Financial illiteracy is the norm, even though we have foundations, government initiatives, regulatory programs and private industry-funded educational institutes -- all designed to raise your level of financial knowledge.

I've looked at this issue for years and I think that Wall Street really doesn't want to increase the nation's financial literacy. Nor do most school systems.

The impacts of financial ignorance are significant: Far too many people live beyond their means, don't save, pay high fees for investment and insurance products, get out of the stock market at the wrong time and make life-changing financial decisions without an ounce of clear information.

Why bother to worry about this now? Congress is considering setting up a Consumer Financial Products Commission to evaluate the stuff the financial services industry sells ... because consumers certainly can't do it all.

Even more crucial is this: Because most of us have to plan and fund our own retirement, such widespread ignorance is dangerous.

"I've made this point many times. If we are thinking we are going to address the lack of financial literacy by informing people at one seminar, let's not even start that discussion. You don't cure pneumonia with an aspirin," said Annamaria Lusardi, professor of economics at Dartmouth College. Lusardi is editor of "Overcoming the Saving Slump: How to Increase the Effectiveness of Financial Education and Saving Programs."

Financial illiteracy is a serious condition, she says, and it requires a serious response.

Her prescription: Start with financial education programs that aren't a one-size-fits-all. First, she says, educators -- at schools and any other institution -- should listen to what consumers want to know, which problems they'd like to solve. Let the consumer needs guide the educational program. Then provide solutions to their specific issues. And do all this in a clear and simple format.