Getting to a higher level of financial literacy in Australia

The practical benefits of improving financial literacy.


This month marks the 20th anniversary since the United States’ government under former President George W. Bush passed legislation officially proclaiming April as Financial Literacy Month.

Financial Literacy Month is quite a big deal in the U.S. Every April, all U.S. state governments, schools, and a wide range of organisations and companies, undertake various initiatives aimed at improving financial literacy, including educational workshops, financial events, and broader marketing activities.

The aim is not just to highlight to Americans the importance of being financially literate, but to give some practical guidance on how people of all ages can improve both their financial knowledge and economic wellbeing.

Australia is not at the same level in terms of having a national, co-ordinated approach to developing financial capabilities across the population.

Government-funded strategies have been limited to date. Private financial education programs are being run in some primary and secondary schools to help students learn about the basics of finance and money. But these programs are not part of the standard school curriculum.

Low literacy levels

The 2020 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) study, funded by the federal government, found after a survey of around 17,000 Australians that while income and wealth levels here are rising, financial literacy is low in different segments of the population.

The HILDA study included five financial literacy questions covering numeracy, inflation, portfolio diversification, risk versus returns, and money illusion (purchasing power).

Those in older age categories tended to achieve higher scores, although there were large differences in financial literacy scores across demographic groups and between individuals based on their level of education. Not surprisingly, it was lowest among young people aged between 15 and 24.

So, what are the practical benefits of having a good level of financial literary?

At the most basic level, it can help people to better manage their money. But even simple lessons, such as understanding how compounding works and the significant wealth benefits it can deliver over the long term, can have profound outcomes.

Investor levels still surging

It is evident that levels of financial literacy are not necessarily deterring individuals from investing.

According to the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) Investor Study 2023, 10.2 million Australians were making investments outside of their family home and superannuation on the ASX when it conducted its research in November 2022.

Of those surveyed, around 20 per cent said they had only begun investing since the end of 2020. One-third said their first investment had been individual shares on the ASX, and for 14 per cent their first investment had been into an exchange traded fund (ETF).

Yet, having a higher level of financial literacy can potentially go a long way in guiding people on key principles such as the importance of setting financial goals and minimising costs, the roles of asset allocation and diversification, and the benefits of having a long-term, disciplined investment approach.

At a younger age, learning basic skills such as budgeting and saving can help a person to take their first investment steps, whether that’s saving up a deposit for a house or investing on the share market.

People in their 30s and 40s tend to be focused on securing and expanding their wealth, sometimes increasing their investment exposure to higher-risk assets.

Older age groups – especially those in their 50s nearing retirement or in their 60s who have already retired – can look to tilt their investments towards income-producing assets.

An ongoing process

In reality, building up financial literacy and knowledge at an individual level should be an ongoing process to prepare for different life stages.

These days, many people are learning the basics and building up their knowledge by reading financial books and listening to podcasts.

But one also should not overlook the important role of professional financial advisers in the financial literacy process, to receive considered advice at key life moments.

Many Australians probably recognise the benefits of receiving financial advice, but do not take the actual step of engaging an adviser.

That is a shame, because advice can go a long way to helping people plan well ahead so they can achieve a financially successful retirement.

Typically, an adviser can guide people in a wide range of areas including saving and budgeting, superannuation contributions, investment strategies, debt management, insurance coverage, and estate planning.

There is no doubt that more can be done on a broad co-ordinated level to improve financial literacy across Australia.

At the same time, there are also obvious steps that people can take themselves to improve their knowledge, and that can readily be accomplished with help from a professional adviser. 




By Balaji Gopal, Head of Client Experience, Vanguard
April 24