Are You a Winner?
posted by Michelle Harner
Two lucky people woke up this morning mega millionaires. After yesterday’s lottery ticket buying frenzy, one winning ticket was sold in Idaho and the other in Washington (see here). The winners will share equally the $355 million jackpot.
Sounds like a dream coming true, right? Unfortunately, for many lottery winners, winning the lottery eventually leads to bankruptcy (see here, here and here). Statistics tend to show that a good portion of lottery winners file chapter 7 or chapter 13 personal bankruptcy cases within five years of receiving their jackpots (see here and here). In one sense, the tale of doom attached to big lottery winnings seems similar to the ploy of telling a bride that rain on her wedding day signals good luck—it makes those of us who didn’t win feel a little better. In another sense, however, it highlights a real problem in our approach to financial education.
Yesterday, the American Bankruptcy Institute reported a significant increase in overall personal bankruptcy filings. Undoubtedly, some of those filings are the direct result of the recession, and some filings stem from similar unforeseen changes in circumstances, such as divorce and serious health problems. But many personal bankruptcies involve honest, unsophisticated individuals who simply do not understand or have the skill set to manage their personal finances. Yes, these individuals should take responsibility for their finances, but they also need training and resources to be successful in that endeavor. Studies suggest that many high school graduates do not understand how credit cards and other basic financial instruments work (see here, here and here), yet most carry credit and debit cards in their wallets.
I appreciate the enormous challenges facing the U.S. education system. As we evaluate these challenges, however, we need to consider financial education as part of the core curriculum. We also need to continue working to provide meaningful financial education to adults (for an interesting study concerning financial education and bankruptcy, see here). Although the 2005 amendments to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code incorporate a consumer education component, that requirement has become little more than the potential debtor sitting in front of a computer screen and answering a few questions in order to be able to file her bankruptcy petition (for other perspectives, see here, here and here; for an excellent study regarding the impact of the 2005 amendments on consumer debtors, see here). I hope that as the economy recovers, so too do our financial education initiatives (see here and here) so that more individuals have a real chance at sustainable financial health.