The Color of Money: Study up on your personal finances

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WASHINGTON -- The major financial activity people associate with April is "tax day" -- today's deadline to file individual tax returns.

But April is also the perfect month to push financial literacy. After all, you've had to pull together major information about your finances to do your taxes.

So what ya doing for Financial Literacy Month?

I get questions all the time from people who want to better handle their finances. During a recent speaking event, a worker asked how he could get his wife to show more interest. Take her to a financial class, I recommended.

Look, if you can spend hours watching NCAA basketball games, or two hours watching a dumb movie, or waste time playing any number of apps on your smartphones (I can get trapped in an "Angry Birds" game for much longer than I care to admit), then why the heck can't you take advantage of the many workshops or programs offered this month?

The answer is you can. And you should, because you keep saying to yourself that you need help. Forty percent of U.S. adults graded themselves a C, D or F on their knowledge of personal finance, according to the most recent financial literacy survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association.

Nearly four in five survey participants said they could use some advice and answers to everyday financial questions from a professional.

When asked what worries them the most, 57 percent of Americans said a lack of savings. Forty-three percent are concerned about not having enough money for an emergency.

Well, stop worrying and do something about it. America Saves, a campaign managed by the Consumer Federation of America, has launched a text-message service that will send out tips and personalized texts to people who pledge to save.

The campaign is offering a nice little carrot to encourage a commitment. It is giving away $500 to one person, chosen at random from all who sign up for the text messages. You have to be 18 or older. Standard messaging rates apply, so be sure you aren't running up text charges trying to win free money.

The promotion runs until April 30. To sign up, go to americasaves.org/pledge. Here's what some of the agreement says: "I [you type your name] pledge to save money, reduce debt, and build wealth over time. I will encourage my family and friends to do the same. I pledge to save $ [fill in the dollar amount] for [set a time frame] month/s."

There's a pull-down menu so that you can select a specific savings goal. The texts will be customized based on the goal you pick.

America Saves Director Nancy Register said her organization is intrigued by experiments conducted in the Philippines among low-income bank account holders. Researchers found that sending regular text messages reminding and encouraging people who had set a savings goal to stay on track increased the total amount saved by 6.3 percent.

"Even now, a significant number of lower-income consumers don't have home access to computers," Ms. Register said. "Youth and young adults communicate more frequently by text than email."

In the case of the America Saves promotion, organizers are banking on the cash award to spur actual saved dollars. "So many incentives are really retail strategies," she said. "You have to spend to save. Many savings tips, like clipping coupons or waiting for deals, are about spending less."

I love the idea of the contest. It's also very true that many savings strategies still encourage spending. I always say, you never save when you spend. You might be spending less, but you are not engaging in the action of saving.

America Saves has it right. A little enticement doesn't hurt. The Council for Economic Education is also having a contest for K-12 classroom teachers. The council is offering a $1,000 prize for the educator who comes up with the most creative video (30 seconds or less) demonstrating a specific financial literacy lesson, activity or project.

The American Library Association and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago are promoting "Money Smart Week" April 20 to April 27 at local libraries. You can find a class at www.moneysmartweek.org and more information at www.ala.org/offices/money-smart-week.

Even if money isn't on the table, take some time to search for a local literacy event this month. Yes, leave your home so that you can improve your financial house.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071 or email her at singletarym@washpost.com.


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