January 21, 2016
Why do people make bad financial decisions, even when they know better?
For several years, Texas Tech University professor Sandra Huston taught Introduction to Personal Finance, a course designed for all majors to increase financial literacy among college students. The personal financial planning professor believed universities had a responsibility to help students become financially literate and avoid the financial pitfalls that plague Americans.
Over time and with research, however, she noticed a disturbing trend.
“All the data pointed to the conclusion that even when we can assist in getting people financially literate – this is, they know what they are supposed to do financially – this doesn’t guarantee they will be able to stay on that path of consistently making wise financial choices,” said Huston, who is the director of the personal finance program (PFI) in the Department of Personal Financial Planning.
“It’s one thing to know it and another thing to do it,” said Dawn Abbott, assistant director of PFI. “We all know debt is bad. Getting into a lot of debt is bad. So why is anybody in a lot of debt? If we know debt is bad, why do we do this?”
There will be two sections of PFI 1305 this semester; Dawn Abbott, who is working on her master’s degree in family and consumer science education, is teaching one and her husband, Michael, who has master’s degrees in psychology and personal financial planning, is teaching the other.
The first section of the class looks at the students’ biggest investment – themselves. Students defer working for four years to come to college. They spend time and money earning a degree, then finish and have no idea how to market this huge investment. Often graduates end up underemployed or going to graduate school for additional credentials.
“We have our learners methodically work through how their educational investment will pay off for them in the future – emphasizing how they plan to turn their education into an income-generating activity, how they specifically plan their path to graduation and how to ensure they make the most of their time in college to give them a comparative advantage in the job market when they cash in on their educational investment,” Huston said.
In this course they discuss not only the job search but also how to prepare to have a job and ways to be more attractive to employers. That may include joining different student organizations, building relationships with professors and professionals and using the alumni network.
The course also covers the jobs for which students are preparing themselves. For instance, Abbott asks about the first job out of college most of them expect to get. Architecture majors say building a skyscraper in New York City. Fashion design majors expect to design wedding dresses for the rich and famous. Business majors want to be CEOs.
The course covers expectations for the first job after graduation.
“No, you’re not,” she tells them. “We need to take this down a notch. That might be your aspiration and your career goal, but let’s back that up to your first job.”
That is one of the more surprising findings in the three semesters Abbott has been teaching. She focuses them on the entry-level jobs they’ll get after college, ways to set themselves apart and even talks about money, what they can expect to get paid in Dallas as compared to Lubbock and the goals they need to set to be prepared for work as soon as they graduate.
The second biggest investment is in a spouse or a long-term relationship partner, and the rate of return is not always great.
“It involves fully investing all of our resources, both financial and human, with another person,” Huston said. “Yet, if I offered you an investment with a 50 percent risk of failure, would you take it? Most people would say, ‘no way,’ yet this is the divorce risk people face when getting married.”
Communication skills will help customers work through situations with fewer destructive arguments.
The class will discuss communication skills, what questions to ask before marriage and how to argue better – not better so one spouse wins, but better so arguments are less destructive. The goal is to give students the tools needed to decrease their “investment risk” (chance of divorce) and improve their “return on investment” (have a more rewarding relationship).
“It’s not if you argue, it’s when you argue, what does that look like?” Abbott said. “You learn how to navigate an argument so it’s a successful argument.”
They also talk about conversations that need to happen before a couple gets married. How will they divide up holidays between their families? How much money will they spend on family vacation versus individual hobbies? How do they want to raise children? How will the workload be divided?
Rarely do people find their “perfect match” in these areas, Abbott said. Because both partners come from different backgrounds, they have different expectations about marriage and family life. A couple can find compromise, but they have to talk about it and know when and how to talk productively.
The third biggest investment – and the No. 1 cause of divorce in the United States – is money.
The money questions they discuss in Life, Love and Money aren’t about saving or investing or how much insurance is needed for a family. Abbott talks with the students about their relationship with money and how to have financial conversations with their spouse or partner.
“It’s not at all the functional side of money,” she said. “We never talk about bank accounts or borrowing or anything like that. We talk about what is your affiliation with money?”
Helping people understand why they make the money decisions they do was a major impetus for creating this course, Huston said. They use neuro-economic research to help students understand how the human brain is wired and how to use that information to help people become more financially competent.
Why do you make the money decisions that you do?
The first step is allowing the students to understand how they feel on money issues. They take a self-assessment – one of about 13 over a semester – to determine whether they are risk averse or risk seeking; i.e. do they want to hide money under their mattress or invest their life savings on a hot new stock tip.
“It’s really getting to know yourself and know how you deal with money,” Abbott said. “Are you a saver? Are you a spender?”
They also talk about where those attitudes come from, such as a person’s family of origin. A student whose father handled the finances may expect the man in a relationship to do the finances. A student whose mother kept track of money may expect the same in his or her relationship. Or, a student who comes from a wealthy family who never worried about money may choose to marry a person who grew up with less money and thus has a more stressful relationship with it.
The course also covers potential financial red flags in future partners, such as people who spend everything they earn and then some.
“Some people, it’s not going to matter if they make $1,000 a month or $100,000 a month, they’re going to be in debt because whatever they get, they spend,” she said.
In this class, as with all classes at Texas Tech, students evaluate the course at the end of the semester. Any doubts Huston had about how it would be received were gone after the first evaluations came in. Students said they got along with their roommates better, they improved relationships with girlfriends and boyfriends and one called off a wedding after learning what qualities to look for in a long-term partner. Still another student changed majors after a difficult but rewarding conversation with his parents about how he didn’t want to take over the family business.
Students say the course has resulted in life-changing decisions.
Others students appreciated the money section and what they learned about themselves.
“I learned I am more present-oriented and need to use some commitment devices to help me stay on the right path,” one student wrote. “When I took the financial literacy test in this class, I was shocked at how low my score was. I am definitely going to sign up for PFI 3301 right away!”
PFI 1305, which is available at 12:30 and 2 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, satisfies the core curriculum requirement for social and behavioral sciences. It is valuable for any student in any major, even those who have already started down the paths they cover. Abbott said she learned better ways to communicate with her husband as she prepared to teach the class and encouraged anyone to sign up.
“If there’s a desk we’ll get you in there somehow,” Abbott said. “I believe every student should have this class.”
Huston agreed. She routinely has people tell her they wished they could have taken this course in college, and many of her peers at other colleges are starting similar classes.
“I love, love, love this course,” she said. “The content is not only directly appealing to students – who doesn’t want to learn more about themselves? – but it also provides you with some of the important tools you need for navigating a rewarding future.”
Undergraduate and graduate degree programs in personal financial planning are registered by the CFP Board. Students graduating from a CFP Board-Registered Program are eligible to sit for the CFP® Certification Examination.Twitter
Sponsored by Charles Schwab Foundation, the first-of-its-kind program features curriculum from college students, professors and independent financial advisers.Twitter
The College of Human Sciences at Texas Tech University provides multidisciplinary education, research and service focused on individuals, families and their environments for the purpose of improving and enhancing the human condition.
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The college also offers graduate programs leading to the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.Twitter