Financial literacy: lessons from abroad

budget-money-blocksLast month I spoke at the Financial Literacy & Education Summit, an annual global conference sponsored by Visa that addresses issues around financial literacy. Engaging with global experts not only allows one to share country experiences but is also a benchmark for what is happening in South Africa.

The good news is that in terms of our banking, South Africa has a very high level of access compared to other emerging markets. One journalist from Egypt told us that only 10% of Egyptians have a bank account and that by and large, Egypt is a cash-based economy where any saving is done through gold ownership. Both Mexico and Brazil only have around half of their population banked while only 12% of Pakistanis are banked, with 25% of men having a bank account compared to only 5% for women. These figures are a sharp contrast to the 67% of South Africans who have bank accounts.

Our financial regulations are certainly world class as well as our innovations around banking. My fellow journalists from other emerging economies were, however, shocked at the level of single motherhood in South Africa. In South Africa more than half of mothers are raising their children alone with very little financial support from the fathers. Figures from the Institute of Race Relations show that 7.3 million children live with only their mother while only 6.2 million children live with both parents. In Mexico for example, single mothers make up only 25%. This is unfortunately a serious social issue that our country needs to address in order to improve the financial vulnerability of both women and children.

There were several initiatives that stood out for me and which could be applied in South Africa:

Get teachers money smart

In Australia they have a financial literacy programme for teachers. The idea of the programme is that once teachers are financially literate, they will be able to incorporate money matters into their daily classes. Indebtedness is a very serious issue among South African teachers and one gets the sense of the futility of having a teacher who does not have financial skills, often struggling to manage their own money, teaching financial literacy out of a textbook set by the state. By empowering the teacher, improving his or her own finances and then encouraging them to share their knowledge through daily lessons, is perhaps a far more effective way to educate school children while improving the finances of our teachers.

Show numbers not percentages

In order to make financial figures more meaningful, Australia has introduced a new figure on their credit card statement, namely how long it will take for you to pay off your balance if you only pay the monthly minimum amount.

Due to the fact that the minimum payment doesn’t cover the interest charged, $5000 credit balance would take 35 years to pay off and cost $18 530, (based on an interest rate of 18.5% and a repayment of 2% of the outstanding balance each month). Providing information in a meaningful way, allows people to make more informed decisions.

Educate through loans and savings groups

Many Pakistanis borrow money through community-based schemes, and the Pakistani government has a programme of “education through loans” whereby the people partaking in the loan arrangements receive financial education. According to the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, since the introduction of this programme they have experienced a 100% repayment record. While as a rule community-based loans tend to have a higher rate of repayment than bank loans, this is still an impressive figure. It also enables a touch point to provide financial literacy at a time that people are thinking about money and need advice. In South Africa we could use this type of programme to create financial literacy programmes aimed at stokvels. Stokvels have a very  high participation rate by all income groups and provide a perfect opportunity to help people who are already saving, to learn more about money management and how better to employ their funds.

Creating a spending conscience

In Korea there is a smartphone app that requires you to authenticate your payment transaction, at which point your phone pops up with a message “Do you really want to buy this?” and even if you press yes, it asks you again “Are you sure you want to buy this?” Research has shown that in about 70% of cases people walk away from the transaction. Maybe not something retailers would approve of, but it shows that sometimes we need to be reminded to think carefully before spending money. Pricking our conscience about our spending habits could improve them significantly.

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  • On education through savings and loans groups, SaveAct in South Africa are building on the momentum of savings associated with stokvels. The work forms part of a wider movement in Africa to train rural women in operating more advanced and more transparent stokvel equivalents. SaveAct has trained about 22 000 people in about 1 000 groups, of which 95% are women, to operate savings and credit groups, adopting constitutions and rules of operation that enable good management of their money. Performance has been very encouraging. Groups earn annual returns of between 30-40% on their financial activities and the are able to operate independently and in a self-sustaining manner. Africa-wide over 6 million people have been trained by NGOs. FinMark Trust has evaluated the SaveAct groups with a view to designing an effective financial education system for members. SaveAct secured an award in April to develop material and pilot revised financial education in the savings and credit groups. The lessons and materials from the FinMark research will be available to all stakeholders to inform their efforts in financial education.

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