Personal Finance “Hot Topics”: A Comparison between Educators and Non-Educators

Personal Finance “Hot Topics”: A Comparison between Educators and Non-Educators

M. Fahzy Abdul-Rahman
New Mexico State University

Megan O’Neil
University of Maryland

Barbara O’Neill
Rutgers Cooperative Extension


Financial education, Cooperative Extension, online survey, personal finance


To effectively plan for future financial education programs, the eXtension Financial Security for All (FSA) Community of Practice (CoP) conducted a survey ( of financial educators and the general public from November 2011 to April 2012 (n=721). The primary objective of the survey was to determine topics for the CoP to focus on for timely and relevant personal finance content. Important topics most frequently selected by respondents, in descending order, were planning for retirement, saving and investing, and managing debt and credit. Highest ranked topics of concern for youth audiences (18 years old and younger), in descending order, were related to financial decision-making, credit, and money management. For older adults (60 years old and older), the most popular topics of concern were related to wills and trusts, managing retirement income, and long-term care. Among survey respondents, personal finance educators and non-educators differed significantly in their opinions on important topics of interest.


The need for personal finance education is high (Bernanke 2012, O’Neill 2013). Life changes in early adulthood and near retirement require emphasis on topics of concern at these ages. The second of four goals in the National Strategy for Financial Literacy, developed by the Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC), is to “determine and integrate core financial competencies” (FLEC 2011). The 2008 financial crisis underscored the importance of FLEC’s first goal to “increase awareness of and access to effective financial education” (FLEC 2011).

This study presents results of a national survey conducted by Cooperative Extension personnel to gauge personal finance topics of interest to the general public, youth (defined as 18 years old and younger), and older Americans (defined as age 60 and older). Results were also compared by respondents’ personal finance teaching status to determine if experts’ and public opinions differ.

Findings from this research make a unique contribution to existing literature. In addition to presenting personal finance topics for different audiences, it compares the perceptions of personal finance educators and non-educators. Conducted after the Great Recession, this study provides timely insights for educational programs and actionable behavior changes, which are in accordance with the Framework for Financial Capability, developed by the Center for Financial Services Innovation (2010). This framework states that the most effective financial interventions address participants’ specific concerns and financial situations and coincide with key life events or moments of decision.


With limited financial and human capital resources, financial educators must develop programs that generate a high return on investment (ROI) by focusing on topics in high demand or that respond to critical societal needs. In order to gauge areas of importance and relevance to audiences, a group of personal finance Cooperative Extension educators conducted an online survey.

In 2011, the Financial Security for All (FSA) Community of Practice (CoP) decided the best way to focus its efforts in the near future was to survey current and potential content users. The FSA CoP (see is a virtual community of professionals from land-grant universities across the country (eXtension 2013). CoP activities include developing curricula, answering questions from the public via e-mail, publishing peer-reviewed Frequently Asked Questions, hosting webinars, and using technology to disseminate unbiased, research-based information.

Among the FSA CoP’s adult lessons are modules for bankruptcy education, investment basics, estate planning, and investing for farm families. For youth audiences, it provides links to the 4-H Build a Million Club on-line course. Composed of state- and county-level personal finance Extension personnel, the FSA CoP wanted to focus their future work on a few high-interest topics. Thus, the primary goal of the survey was to determine areas of high interest in personal finance for programming and research.

Review of literature

Youth financial education

For young adults, the transition from being financially dependent to independent is facilitated by learning about personal finance. Decisions made by youth (e.g., saving money in a tax-deferred retirement account) can have a far-reaching impact. Youth financial education was a major focus of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability (2013) from 2010 to 2013, which led to Money as You Grow guidelines ( for educators, parents, and community leaders to help instill personal finance knowledge in children. Money as You Grow includes various milestones that children of different ages are expected to achieve. This literature review of youth financial education includes studies involving youth 18 years old and younger, which corresponds to the definition of youth in the FSA CoP survey.

The availability of personal finance education to high school students has increased with the emergence of state mandates that establish standards for personal finance education. However, much remains to be done (Bernanke 2008). Although 82 percent of teachers and 85 percent of American parents indicate that personal finance should be a compulsory subject in order to graduate high school (Way and Holden 2009; Visa 2011), only thirteen states in 2011 (up from one in 2000 and seven in 2007) required a personal finance course to graduate high school, compared to 22 requiring an economics course (Council for Economic Education 2011).

Average scores of a biennial financial literacy survey of high school seniors conducted by Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy declined from a high of 57.3 percent in 1997-1998 to an all-time low of 48.3 percent in 2007-2008 (Mandell 2008). The Charles Schwab Teens and Money survey (2011) found personal finance knowledge and practices mostly worsening among youths (age 16 to 18). The survey looked at skills such as how to write a check (67 percent knew in 2007 vs. 60 percent in 2011), how to balance a checkbook (51 percent vs. 35 percent), how to manage a credit card (64 percent vs. 39 percent), how to maintain a savings account (72 percent vs. 58 percent), and how to maintain a checking account (75 percent vs. 51 percent). The good news, according to the same survey, is that teens have increased desire to learn about money management (53 percent in 2008 vs. 80 percent in 2011).

The Jump$tart Coalition survey (Mandell 2008) revealed low scores for questions related to stolen credit cards (13.0 percent correct), long-term investing (16.8 percent), and savings account interest (27.3 percent), while questions related to safe places to save (87.7 percent), CDs as a non-spending account (82.1 percent), and sources of income (75.3 percent) had high scores. The topics of questions with high correct proportions are relatively straightforward and have not changed much in recent years.

When compared with 27 other countries in the 2012 Global Financial Literacy Barometer, the United States ranked second-to-last on people’s perception of teens’ understanding of personal finance with a score of 18.5 (0-100 scale, with 100 being perfect understanding). In addition, 70.5 percent of respondents indicated that U.S. teens do not understand money management basics (Visa 2012).

Issues related to youth financial illiteracy include inadequate preparation of teachers to teach personal finance (Way and Holden 2009) and teen reliance on parents as their primary source of financial education (Shim et al. 2010; Charles Schwab 2011; Junior Achievement 2012; Royer, Jordan, and Harrison 2005). Based on Charles Schwab’s 2011 Teens & Money Survey, 77 percent of teens perceived their parents as great models in money management. This can be problematic when adults are not performing well in personal finance knowledge and practices.

Adult financial education

The Financial Literacy Survey of Adults 2012 (National Foundation for Credit Counseling 2012) found that more than half (56 percent) of a national sample of 1,007 adults reported having no budget, almost two out of five (39 percent) revolved their credit card balance, and 33 percent do not pay all of their bills on time. The 2010 Northwestern Mutual Financial Matters Study found only 1 percent of respondents scored higher than 90 percent on a quiz on general personal finance and insurance, while 5 percent scored in the 80 percent to 89 percent range, and more than two-thirds failed (Northwestern Mutual n.d.).

Financial capability (or a lack thereof) is an area of concern. Financial capability is measured in terms of how well people make ends meet, plan ahead, choose and manage financial products, and possess skills and knowledge to make financial decisions. According to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) Financial Capability Survey 2012, 41 percent of respondents said it was very difficult or somewhat difficult to keep up with monthly expenses, 56 percent had sufficient “rainy day” funds, and about one-third of Americans reported paying only the required minimum amount due on their credit card balance (FINRA 2013). On a test of five basic financial literacy questions, the national average was 2.88 correct answers (FINRA 2013).

Older adult financial education

When it comes to personal finance topics, Americans tend to perform better as they age (FINRA 2013; LIMRA 2013). For instance, based on FINRA’s 2012 Financial Capability Survey (FINRA 2013), 7 percent of adults 55 years old and older have a loan from their retirement account (vs. 22 percent for the 18-34 age group), 17 percent have unpaid medical bills (vs. 31 percent), 53 percent have set aside three months’ worth of emergency funds (vs. 33 percent), 28 percent engaged expensive credit card behavior (vs. 52 percent), and 15 percent used non-bank borrowing in the last five years (vs. 43 percent).

Although personal finance knowledge tends to improve as one ages, many older adults still lack the understanding of basic personal finance topics. Lusardi, Mitchell, and Curto (2010) found that many adults 55 years old and older lack basic understanding of investing; only 40 percent understood the relationship between bond prices and interest rates, while 52 percent understood risks associated with investment in stocks. However, new challenges at older ages require older Americans to be equipped with knowledge beyond general personal finance topics. Expected topics of concern are funding for children’s college, retirement, health insurance, long-term care insurance, estate planning, and health insurance issues.


Survey instrument

The online instrument, Survey of Personal Finance Important Topics, was available from November 1, 2011, to April 30, 2012. At the conclusion of the survey, a usable sample of 721 respondents was gathered. Three submitted surveys were excluded because all of their survey items had missing responses.

Respondents were introduced to the survey with the following language: “The goal of this survey is to gather information on important topics in personal finance. While your participation in this survey is voluntary, your response will greatly help in designing personal finance programs to meet the public’s needs.” Even though data collection is complete, the survey instrument remains available in Google Docs at

The survey instrument includes six items plus questions about respondents’ demographic characteristics. The six items are as follows:

  • Self-Rated Personal Finance Knowledge: This section used a five-part Likert-type scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.”
  • Personal Finance Information Sources: This section used a Likert-type scale with five possible responses, “Always,” “Sometimes,” “Rarely,” “Never,” and “Don’t Know,” for nine potential financial information sources. These information sources were as follows: family members, financial advisors, seminars or meetings, courses taken in high school and college, courses taken since leaving school, periodicals, the Cooperative Extension System, sources on the Internet, and financial planning software.
  • Actions Taken to Learn More About Personal Finance: Respondents were asked to select from among the following items: self-studied, took courses in high school, took courses in college, majored in personal finance area in college, took a minor in personal finance in college, attended workshops, and an “Other” option for open-ended responses in addition to those that were listed.
  • Three Age-Specific, Important Personal Finance Topic Selections: Items were provided for respondents to select important topics in personal finance in general and for youth and older adult audiences. Specific responses for each section were provided with an “Other” open-ended option to capture additional feedback from respondents.


This study relied on influential Cooperative Extension partners to disseminate the survey link to their constituents, often on multiple occasions. Examples include the American Savings Education Council, which distributed the survey to its partners, and National Institute of Food and Agriculture-U.S. Department of Agriculture (NIFA-USDA) family economics program leader Susan Shockey, who distributed the survey link both within the Cooperative Extension Family Economics network and to external organizations. Those who received the link were urged to take the survey themselves and to share it with colleagues and clientele. A total of 721 persons completed the survey during a six-month sampling period that coincided with a period of slow U.S. economic growth and high unemployment (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2013).

Data analysis

SAS 9.3 was used for data analyses including comparisons between the educator and non-educator groups. Respondents were grouped as an educator if they responded “Yes” to the item on teaching personal finance, whether or not they were compensated for teaching. If they answered “No,” they were grouped in the non-educator category. The null hypotheses were that individual results between the two groups were not different. We used two-tailed comparisons for the significance testing.

For independent variables with two levels (e.g., selected vs. not selected), the chi-square test was used except in instances where there was at least one expected cell count less than five, in which case Fisher’s exact test was used. For independent variables with more than two levels (e.g., five-point Likert scale), the Kruskal Wallis test was used. This test assumes that the response levels were in ordinal scale. The significance level was set at 5 percent.


Sample demographic characteristics

Table 1, below, contains demographic characteristics of survey respondents with results stratified by respondents’ personal finance teaching status. Of the 721 respondents, 14 respondents did not respond to the item on personal finance teaching status. Among those who responded to this item, 36 percent (n=261) taught personal finance. The p-values in the table are for “not teaching personal finance” and “teaching personal finance” group comparisons.

Overall, respondents to the survey tended to be working age, female, college educated, and white, non-Hispanic. The “not teaching personal finance” and “teaching personal finance” groups were different. Those teaching personal finance tended to be female, highly educated, have a higher income, and live in the Northeast and Western regions of the United States, compared to their non-teaching counterparts. Age, marital status, number of children living at home, and race/ethnicity variables between the two groups did not show significant differences.

Table 1. Demographic characteristics of the sample

Details U.S  



Personal Finance
Personal Finance
100% 100% 721 62.3% 449 36.2% 261
Age (p=0.1000) 100% 100% 1433 100% 895 100% 519
18 – 21 5.3% 0.1% 1 0.2% 1 0.0% 0
22 – 30 18.2% 9.2% 66 10.7% 48 6.5% 17
31 – 40 16.7% 14.9% 107 16.0% 72 13.0% 34
41 – 50 18.1% 21.1% 152 21.2% 95 21.5% 56
51 – 60 17.6% 34.8% 250 31.9% 143 39.5% 103
61 – 70 12.6% 17.8% 128 17.4% 78 18.4% 48
71 – 80 6.9% 2.0% 14 2.5% 11 1.2% 3
80+ 4.5% 0.1% 1 0.2% 1 0.0% 0
Gender (p=0.0046) 100% 100% 714 100% 446 100% 258
Male 48.6% 17.5% 125 20.4% 91 88.0% 227
Female 51.4% 82.5% 589 79.6% 355 12.0% 31
Highest Educational Attainment (p<0.0001) 100% 100% 704 100% 439 100% 255
Some high school 13.2% 0.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 0
High school 30.0% 2.1% 15 3.2% 14 0.4% 1
Some college 19.5% 10.9% 77 14.1% 62 5.9% 15
Associate degree 9.2% 5.0% 35 6.6% 29 2.4% 6
Bachelor’s degree 18.4% 27.7% 195 29.4% 129 24.7% 63
Post college graduate 9.8% 54.3% 382 46.7% 205 66.7% 170
Marital Status (p=0.2913) 100% 100% 701 100% 437 100% 255
Married 56.5% 69.5% 487 69.8% 305 68.2% 174
Divorced 10.4% 12.7% 89 11.0% 48 15.7% 40
Separated 2.4% 0.7% 5 0.7% 3 0.8% 2
Widowed 6.3% 4.7% 33 4.6% 20 5.1% 13
Single, never married 24.5% 12.4% 87 14.0% 61 10.2% 26
Children Living at Home; financially dependent (p=0.4262) 100% 100% 710 100% 445 100% 257
0 52.0% 58.7% 417 57.8% 257 60.7% 156
1 20.0% 20.2% 143 20.2% 90 19.5% 50
2 18.0% 14.8% 105 15.5% 69 14.0% 36
3 10.0% 4.8% 34 5.2% 23 4.3% 11
4 0.0% 0.9% 6 1.1% 5 0.4% 1
5 or more 0.0% 0.7% 5 0.2% 1 1.2% 3
Race/ethnicity x x x x x x x
White (p=0.9452) 64.3% 85.3% 586 85.4% 367 85.5% 213
Hispanic (p=0.1975) 16.3% 2.7% 19 3.2% 14 1.6% 4
Income (p=0.0009) 100% 100% 689 100% 433 100% 249
Less than $25,000 51.8% 6.4% 44 8.1% 35 4.0% 9
$25,000 to $49,999 25.0% 30.2% 208 32.8% 142 26.0% 65
$50,000 to $74,999 11.8% 27.9% 192 27.9% 121 28.0% 70
$75,000 to $99,999 5.0% 17.4% 120 15.0% 65 21.0% 53
$100,000 or greater 6.4% 18.1% 125 16.2% 70 21.0% 52
Region (p=0.0047) 100% 100% 724 100% 449 100% 261
Northeast 18.0% 3.0% 22 2.2% 10 4.6% 12
Midwest 22.0% 28.9% 209 30.1% 135 27.6% 72
South 37.0% 50.1% 363 52.8% 237 44.1% 115
West 23.0% 18.0% 130 14.9% 67 23.8% 62
Teach Personal Finance: Do you teach personal finance? If yes, paid or not paid? x 100% 710 100% 449 100% 261
Yes, for pay x 25.4% 180 x x 69.0% 180
Yes, without pay x 11.4% 81 x x 31.0% 81
No x 63.2% 449 100% 449 x x

Teaching Personal Finance

Note: The total of those who taught personal finance and those who did not may not total up the “All” values because the “All” values include those who did not respond to the teaching personal finance item.

Self-rated personal finance knowledge

As shown in Figure 1, 82.0 of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they are knowledgeable about personal finance topics. Not surprisingly, half of those who teach personal finance responded “Strongly Agree” compared to 18.6 percent of those not teaching personal finance. These two groups’ respondents were significantly different with a p-value less than 0.0001.

Figure 1. Self-rated personal finance knowledge

This figure shows results for self-rated personal finance knowledge for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

χ2=111.4042; P<0.0001

Personal finance information sources

The nine graphs that comprise Figure 2 indicate personal finance information sources for the nine categories listed in the survey. Sources with the most frequent use were family members (14.2 percent) and Cooperative Extension (14.1 percent). When “Always” and “Sometimes” were combined, the most-used sources by far were newspaper and magazine articles (75.7 percent) and the Internet (74.1 percent). The sources of information with the most “Never” responses were financial planning software (40.9 percent) followed by courses taken in high school or college (34.1 percent) and Cooperative Extension (29.3 percent).

When analyzed separately to compare personal finance teaching and non-teaching respondents, 30.8 percent of the teaching group selected the “Always” response for Cooperative Extension followed by classes taken since leaving school (24.6 percent) and the Internet (23.2 percent). For the non-teaching group, the only personal finance information sources with more than a 10 percent “Always” selection were an accountant or financial advisor (12.4 percent) and family members (17.0 percent). Financial planning software was the category with the largest “Never” selection for both the teaching (30.6 percent) and non-teaching groups (46.5 percent). For the teaching group, this was followed closely by never having taken courses in high school at 30.0 percent.

Comparisons of personal finance information sources between those who teach and don’t teach personal finance exhibited significant differences. All of these comparisons were significant at 0.1 percent significance level except for using an accountant or financial advisor, which had a p-value of 0.0012. Comparisons between the two groups revealed results that would not have been observed within the entire sample. For example, Cooperative Extension being selected as one of the most frequently cited “Always” sources of personal finance information (and also one of the most frequently cited “Never” used sources). Those who did not teach had 4.8 percent respondents with an “Always” response compared to 30.8 percent among those who teach personal finance.

Figure 2. Personal finance information sources

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

This figure shows personal information sources results for all respondents and personal finance teaching and non-teaching groups.

Actions taken to learn about personal finance

Table 2 shows results for actions taken to learn more about personal finance and important topics for the sample, stratified by personal finance teaching status. The primary ways of learning personal finance were through self-study (76.7 percent), workshop attendance (64.9 percent), and college course enrollment (39.0 percent). When the teaching and non-teaching groups were compared, the teaching group had higher participation in all of the listed activities to learn more about personal finance than the non-teaching group except for courses taken in high school. The ranking of the most-used ways to learn more about personal finance for the two personal finance teaching status groups was similar to that for the total sample. In other words, when the most-used ways to learn about personal finance were ranked from the highest to lowest percentages, rankings for the overall sample, educator, and non-educator group were very similar.

“Other” open-ended responses to the item about strategies to learn about personal finance included certification programs, a respondent’s profession, teaching personal finance, on-job tasks, questioning family members and personal finance professionals, and a myriad of other responses. The latter included financial media personality Dave Ramsey, a Financial Peace University CD, Christian financial counselor Larry Burkett, and various Internet resources.

Important financial topics

General public (all audiences). As shown in Table 2, the most important personal finance topics among the 13 listed were planning for retirement (84.3 percent), saving and investing (79.3 percent), and managing debt and credit (78.7 percent). Responses that received less than a 50 percent response were getting a loan (29.8 percent), getting insured (32.0 percent), and using banks and credit unions (42.8 percent). When these percentages were stratified by personal finance teaching status, the top three and lowest three topic rankings in each group remained the same.

Comparing the teaching and non-teaching groups, the “planning for retirement” and “saving and investment” items were the top two most frequently selected topics with no statistical difference between the teaching and non-teaching groups. The largest response discrepancy was observed for the “talking about money with family” item, where the teaching group had a 63.6 percent selection percentage compared to 37.0 percent for the non-teaching group. Apparently, financial educators, many with an interdisciplinary family and consumer sciences background, weight communication about money much higher in importance than consumer audiences do.

Youth audiences. Among 13 listed items, top items selected for youth financial education were making decisions about money (82.5 percent), using a credit card (78.2 percent), keeping track of money (76.9 percent), college funding and student loans (75.0 percent), understanding income and expenses (74.2 percent), and creating a plan for spending (71.4 percent). The only item with less than a 50 percent selection rate was using online banking at 49.2 percent.

Comparing the teaching and non-teaching groups, the teaching group was more likely to select the listed topics as important for youth to understand, with two exceptions: “understanding income and expenses” and “college funding and student loans.” These two items were not statistically different between the teaching and non-teaching groups, indicating a high degree of agreement about the importance of these topics.

Older adult audiences. Among thirteen listed items, top items selected for the older adult category were preparing wills and trusts (86.9 percent); managing retirement income and savings (85.4 percent); long-term care (80.3 percent); financing healthcare expenses (79.0 percent); and scams, frauds, and identity theft (74.7 percent). Four items had a selection rate of less than 50 percent: dealing with mortgages (33.8 percent), getting insured (37.9 percent), managing debt and credit (45.6 percent), and knowing your consumer rights (46.7 percent).

Comparing the teaching and non-teaching groups, the teaching group more frequently selected seven of the thirteen items. The other six items were not statistically different between the teaching and non-teaching groups. Large differences were observed for the following items: managing debt and credit (41.2 percent for non-teaching vs. 54.8 percent for teaching groups); talking about money with family (49.2 percent vs. 67.4 percent); scams, frauds, and identity theft (70.8 percent vs. 83.1 percent); and dealing with mortgages (27.4 percent vs. 45.6 percent).

Table 2Courses in personal finance and important personal finance topics

Detail All Not Teaching
Personal Finance
Personal Finance
Sample 100% 721 62.3% 449 36.2% 261
Q3: Courses in Personal Finance. What have you done to learn more about personal finance? Check any that apply. Self-studied (p<0.0001) 76.7% 555 72.2% 324 85.1% 222
Attended workshops, talks (p<0.0001) 64.9% 470 55.9% 251 82.0% 214
Took courses in college (p<0.0001) 39.0% 282 29.2% 131 56.7% 148
Took courses in high school (p=0.5746) 18.2% 132 18.9% 85 17.2% 45
Majored in personal finance area in college (p<0.0001) 10.8% 78 4.5% 20 22.2% 58
Took a minor in personal finance in college (p<0.0001) 4.6% 33 2.2% 10 8.8% 23
Other (p=0.003) 16.4% 119 13.6% 61 22.2% 58
Q4: Important Personal Finance Topics Overall. Check any that apply. Planning for retirement (p=0.6183) 84.3% 610 85.3% 383 83.9% 219
Saving and investing (p=0.2276) 79.3% 574 78.6% 353 82.4% 215
Managing debt and credit (p <0.0001) 78.7% 570 74.4% 334 87.7% 229
Budgeting  (p<0.0001) 67.5% 489 62.1% 279 78.5% 205
Managing cash flow (p=0.0001) 60.4% 437 55.5% 249 70.1% 183
Scams, frauds, and identity theft  (p<0.0001) 59.7% 432 54.1% 243 69.7% 182
Talking about money with family  (p<0.0001) 46.4% 336 37.0% 166 63.6% 166
Dealing with mortgages (p<0.0001) 50.4% 365 44.5% 200 60.9% 159
Knowing your consumer rights  (p<0.0001) 45.4% 329 38.8% 174 57.1% 149
Paying for college (p=0.0001) 43.9% 318 38.8% 174 53.6% 140
Using banks and credit unions (p=0.0002) 42.8% 310 37.9% 170 52.1% 136
Getting insured (p<0.0001) 32.0% 232 24.7% 111 44.8% 117
Getting a loan (p<0.0001) 29.8% 216 23.2% 104 41.4% 108
Other (p=0.0005) 6.5% 47 4.0% 18 10.7% 28
Q5: Important Personal Finance Topics for YOUTH. Check any that apply. Making decisions about money (p=0.0497) 82.5% 597 80.9% 363 86.6% 226
Using credit and credit cards (p=0.2893) 78.2% 566 77.1% 346 80.5% 210
Keeping track of money (p=0.007) 76.9% 557 74.4% 334 83.1% 217
College funding and student loans (p=0.3103) 75.0% 543 74.4% 334 77.8% 203
Understanding income and expenses (p=0.1146) 74.2% 537 72.8% 327 78.2% 204
Creating a plan for spending (p=0.0017) 71.4% 517 67.9% 305 78.9% 206
Importance of credit history (p=0.0028) 66.3% 480 63.0% 283 74.0% 193
Scams, frauds, and identity theft (p=0.0333) 65.5% 474 63.0% 283 70.9% 185
Saving and investing options (p=0.6491) 59.1% 428 58.8% 264 60.5% 158
Using a bank or credit union (p<0.0001) 53.9% 390 47.0% 211 66.7% 174
Paying yourself first (p<0.0001) 53.7% 389 43.7% 196 72.0% 188
Automobile insurance (p<0.0001) 54.1% 392 47.7% 214 65.9% 172
Using online banking (p<0.0001) 49.2% 356 43.4% 195 59.4% 155
Other (p=0.0718) 4.7% 34 3.6% 16 6.5% 17
Q6: Important Personal Finance Topics for OLDER ADULTS. Check any that apply. Preparing wills, trusts (p=0.133) 86.9% 629 85.8% 385 89.7% 234
Managing retirement income and savings (p=0.4458) 85.4% 618 85.3% 383 87.4% 228
Long-term care (p=0.3896) 80.3% 581 79.7% 358 82.4% 215
Financing healthcare expenses (p=0.0963) 79.0% 572 78.0% 350 83.1% 217
Scams, frauds, and identity theft (p=0.0002) 74.7% 541 70.8% 318 83.1% 217
Caregiving (p=0.026) 68.2% 494 65.9% 296 74.0% 193
Planning for retirement (p=0.3532) 66.2% 479 68.2% 306 64.8% 169
Talking about money with family (p<0.0001) 55.5% 402 49.2% 221 67.4% 176
Saving and investing (p=0.5044) 54.6% 395 54.1% 243 56.7% 148
Knowing your consumer rights (p=0.0061) 46.7% 338 43.0% 193 53.6% 140
Managing debt and credit (p=0.0005) 45.6% 330 41.2% 185 54.8% 143
Getting insured (p=0.0039) 37.9% 274 34.3% 154 45.2% 118
Dealing with mortgages (p<0.0001) 33.8% 245 27.4% 123 45.6% 119
Other (p=0.002) 3.5% 25 1.8% 8 6.1% 16

Note: The total from those who taught personal finance and those who did not may not total up to the “All” values because the “All” values include those who did not respond to the teaching personal finance item.

A number of “other” open-ended responses were received for the general public (75), youth (39), and older adult (31) categories. For the general public, the highest-frequency “other” responses were about credit (9) and tax issues. Many respondents said the listed preset responses under the youth items were important. These responses included the following: “Youth need information on all of these topics in order to function in today’s world,” “Yes, these are all very good topics,” “I believe youth need access to all the above,” and “All of the topics need to be taught to our youth.” Of the 31 open-ended responses for older adult topics, eight responses were related to reverse mortgages while six responses were related to health topics.


A limitation of this study was use of an online convenience sample that used the Cooperative Extension personal finance network to obtain a quick picture of high-interest personal finance topics. As a result, a large portion of respondents taught personal finance, some of whom were involved in Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) Cooperative Extension work. A second limitation is that almost two-thirds (63.5 percent) of the sample had a household income greater than $50,000 and over three-quarters had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Thus, it is fair to say that the financial education needs of low and moderate income families are under-represented.


Respondents to Personal Finance Hot Topics Survey 2012 tended to be working age, female, educated, Caucasian, and have higher than average incomes, Apart from demographics, other results also indicated that the overall sample may not be representative of the U.S. population:

  • Eight of ten respondents agreed (51 percent) or strongly agreed (30 percent) that they were financially knowledgeable.
  • Almost half of the sample (49 percent) listed Cooperative Extension as a source of personal finance information.

Thus, results were stratified by personal finance teaching status to see if these two groups’ responses were different and to better understand how educators’ responses differ from those of non-educators (i.e., the general public).

Educators selected a greater number of important topics for the three age group categories of interest – all audiences, youth, and older adults. When ranked by percentage selected, however, the ranks of topics were quite similar between the teaching and non-teaching groups. For instance, the top three overall personal finance topics for the educator and non-educator groups were planning for retirement (85.3 percent for non-educators vs. 83.9 percent for educators), saving and investing (78.6 percent vs. 82.4 percent), and managing debt and credit (74.4 percent vs. 87.7 percent).

Topics with large percentage differences between educators and non-educators (15 percent or more) are shown in Figure 3. The “talking about money with family” and “dealing with mortgages” topics had large frequency differences between the non-educator and educator groups for the overall (all audiences) and older adult audience categories. Perhaps consumers are less interested in these topics because mortgage information is needed only when one is a homebuyer and talking about money may be involve discussing “sensitive” family financial information.

Understanding where individuals seek personal finance information provides insights on ways to deliver personal finance programs (O’Neill et al. 2000). The overall sample sought information from family members, the Cooperative Extension System (CES), Internet resources, and printed materials. The popularity of the CES should be viewed with caution, however, due to the survey sampling method. The CES and courses or post-high school classes are two information sources with clear differences between non-educator and educator responses, with educators’ “Always” responses dwarfing non-educator ones. The only information source that the non-teaching group used more than the teaching group is family members.

Figure 3. Topics with large percentage differences between educators and non-educators


Implications of the findings of this study are as follows:

  • Provide assistance to do-it-yourselfers: With about three-fourths of respondents selecting “self-studied” (76.7 percent), newspapers/magazines (75.7 percent), and Internet sources (74.1 percent) as their primary sources of personal finance information, teaching methods should include online resources and use social media to market these resources. Educators should incorporate “do-it-yourself” resources, such as free online courses, worksheets, calculators, resource guides, and financial planning activities into their programs.
  • Know your sample: Statistics that seemed too good to be true appeared more realistic when stratified by personal finance teaching status. For instance, although overall results showed 82 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were financially knowledgeable, only 73.4 percent of non-educators responded as such. Stratified results also indicated that non-educators, who tend to be less knowledgeable in personal finance than educators, may roughly know important financial topics that the general public is supposed to know. This is based on similar topic importance ranking results with financial educators.
  • Focus on audience needs: In designing personal finance educational programs, educators need to keep the target audience in mind for both preferred topics of interest and information delivery preferences (NEFE 2006; O’Neill et al. 2000; Lyons and Hunt 2003). Specifically, programs and materials need to be “personalized, engaging, attainable, reinforcing, and relevant” (Gurney 2006). People may also need to be shown that they overrate themselves in personal finance because they don’t know what they don’t know.
  • Consider an interdisciplinary approach: A topic that had large selection difference between respondents who were educators and non-educators was talking about money with family members. This topic may require content from the areas of family studies (Washburn and Christensen 2008) and psychology to teach effective communication strategies.
  • Beware of false confidence: Almost three-quarters (73.4 percent) of non-educators considered themselves highly financially knowledgeable. This could mean they are financially literate or simply overconfident. Their most frequently reported “Always” information source was family members, who may not be well-versed in personal finance. Stratified results showed that Cooperative Extension resources were not popular among non-educators, an indication of a need to improve Extension marketing and outreach efforts.

Results of this survey can help financial educators prioritize topic areas in personal finance education efforts. They can also help educators recognize their possible financial education bias or preference and realize that their clientele may have very different delivery and content preferences than what they assumed. To conduct a quality personal finance education program, it is essential to listen to learners and address their content interests, learning method preferences, and other concerns.




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