The Crisis in Our Future

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Foolanthropy 2006
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By Brian Richards
December 22, 2006

With Social Security more unreliable with each passing year, and with corporate pensions going away -- IBM (NYSE: IBM), Verizon (NYSE: VZ), and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) recently froze all or some of their pensions in favor of 401(k) plans -- more Americans are charged with controlling their own financial destiny.

The mixed bag
That's decidedly good news if (1) you know what you're doing, and (2) you have some interest in doing it. You can pick your own equities, determine optimal asset allocation, and not have to pay sometimes-exorbitant broker/planner fees.

But it's decidedly bad news if (1) you don't know what you're doing or (2) you have no interest in doing it.

Unfortunately, as this trend has taken shape, it's been accompanied by another: fewer Americans are learning about investing and personal finance. In a 2004 study of U.S. high school seniors, only 52% could correctly answer questions about economics and finance. According to USA Today, "The students struggled, for example, with questions on income tax, stocks and bonds, credit card liability, and retirement plans."

It ain't just those pesky kids
Consider this snippet from the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE):

Adults and students were given a 24-question quiz in economics and personal finance. The quiz covered the 20 economic content standards developed by NCEE, plus additional concepts related to personal finance. Based on this quiz, adults get a grade of 70 (C) for their knowledge of economics, and students' average score is 53 (F). Six in 10 high school students and more than one-quarter of adults get a failing grade on the Economics Quiz.

Egads! So, to recap: The Pension Protection Act of 2006 and the gloominess surrounding Social Security put the onus on us -- particularly the younger generations, who will be the ones to shoulder a Social Security shortfall -- to make the most of our money. But, of course, there's an elephant in the room: While we're more accountable, we're no more educated about what decisions to make.

Choir, meet preacher
Now, most readers are here precisely because they control (or want to control) their financial destiny. But before you shrug your shoulders and click "back," remember: You are not like most Americans.

So, then, what can we do? The easiest yet most profound action you can take is this: Sit down with your children or grandchildren or nieces/nephews or friends or co-workers and preach to them the importance of saving, investing, and other money issues -- no matter how young or old they may be. Spread the word.

That simple act will go a long way. You can also get involved with an organization such as Jump$tart, which is available in almost every state and offers memberships and other opportunities.

And last but not least, you can donate money. You can, in this respect, take a page from some businesses we admire a great deal. Fool newsletter recommendations 3M (NYSE: MMM) and UPS (NYSE: UPS), for example, have each pledged more than $100,000 to the NCEE.

The Motley Fool has chosen The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship as one of our five Foolanthropy 2006 charities. NFTE helps young people from low-income communities do better in business, school, and life by teaching them entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

Since its founding in 1987, the organization has reached more than 150,000 young men and women from low-income areas. To donate to NFTE -- remember, no amount is too small -- follow this link.

The Foolish bottom line
The stats and surveys make it plain that there's a crisis in our future if things remain the same.

You can do something about it. Share your knowledge. Educate those around you. There's no better time to start than right now.

Click here to learn more about Foolanthropy past and present, to read up on all five charities selected for this year's efforts, and, of course, to donate to a deserving charity.

Brian Richards owns shares of 3M, which is an Inside Value recommendation. UPS is an Income Investor recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.