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What we really need to be better off financially

Crossposted from . This opinion editorial was posted on January 27, 2014 online.

We are facing a financial education crisis in this country. The gap between the complex financial world and our ability to navigate it is growing wider. Too many financial lessons are learned through trial and error, where it is costly to recover from a financial mistake, let alone to achieve your financial goals.

At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we are working to close this gap. We are simplifying complicated financial forms like mortgage disclosures; putting new rules in place to safeguard consumers against predatory practices; cracking down on companies that violate consumer protection laws; and, most importantly, educating consumers.

Since the economy crashed in 2008, people broadly agree that we need more financial education. But financial literacy is only one of the steps people need to take to attain overall financial well-being. Changing our financial habits and behaviors is also important if we want to improve this key aspect of our lives.

The Consumer Bureau asked consumers how they define financial well-being. They told us it is not strictly about how much money you make, but also about security and freedom — both now and in the future. Those who reported higher levels of financial well-being had four financial habits in common that deserve closer attention.

They live within their means. First, these consumers feel they have control over their day-to-day and month-to-month finances. They are able to cover their expenses and pay their bills on time, and generally they do not worry about having enough money to get by. This is not just about having money, they told us, it is about managing it better.

They have a financial cushion. Second, these consumers feel they have the capacity to absorb a financial shock. Whether they get in a car accident or are temporarily laid off from a job, they have a safety net such as savings, insurance, or family to avoid severe financial turmoil.

They have a plan. Consumers with a higher sense of financial well-being see themselves as on track to meet their financial goals. Whether they have a formal financial plan or not, they are actively working toward goals. Those goals may include saving to buy a car or home, paying off student loans, putting away money for retirement, or just having enough for emergencies.

They have a sense of financial freedom. Finally, these consumers feel they have the financial freedom to make the choices that allow them to enjoy life, whatever that means to them. Whether that is taking a family vacation, going out to eat, or working less to spend more time with family, these consumers have the financial flexibility to do what they value and what makes them happy.

The main question we face is: How can we better help people achieve these goals and attain financial security and freedom? Right now, research shows that almost half of Americans describe themselves as struggling to pay their bills.

Consumers can take steps to strengthen these four components of financial well-being in their own lives. For example, they can use tools to track and manage spending, set explicit goals to guide their financial decisions, and build savings. Establishing good, responsible habits and making balanced financial decisions can have big rewards in the form of financial freedom and quality of life.

Many consumers ask us where to start. Our research suggests that consumers do better when they ask, plan, and act. That is, when they ask for information to help them make the best financial choices, set realistic goals and make plans to meet them, and then take advantage of resources they have to stay on track.

Through a focused commitment to financial education, the Consumer Bureau is working to empower consumers. By giving them tools and opportunities to operate in a fair marketplace, we can help them thrive in today’s complex financial world.

Richard Cordray is the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.