- Heather Long writes that the U.S. trails in financial literacy and many people are unprepared to make key decisions about spending, borrowing and saving for retirement
- Financial education, required only in 17 states, should be mandatory everywhere, she writes
(CNN)I will never forget the first day of "sex ed" at my public elementary school.
My parents opted me out. They felt it was a subject that should be "taught at home." I was the only child opted out of the entire 5th grade. The teachers sent me to the playground, a very boring place without friends.
That was 1994. By then, most of America had accepted that public schools would -- and should -- teach children about the birds and bees. Where I lived in Virginia, sex ed began in 5th grade and continued every year thereafter.
I learned a lot about condoms, STDs and intercourse from school (my parents stopped opting me out eventually). In contrast, I learned almost nothing about credit cards, IRAs and interest rates at school.
While sexual education is mainstream in K-12 schools, financial education is not. The result is that the U.S. ranks 14th -- behind Israel, Canada, Australia, Singapore and much of Europe -- in financial literacy. That's according to a huge survey of over 150,000 people in 148 countries conducted by Standard & Poor's and Gallup in 2014.
Americans are stumped by the simplest financial questions. Only about half of Americans could answer this question correctly: Suppose you need to borrow $100. Which is the lower amount to pay back: $105 or $100 plus three percent? (Answer: $100 plus three percent.)
And then we wonder why so many Americans have serious money issues. Nearly half the people in this country say they don't have enough money saved to cover even a $400 emergency expense, and a third of Americans regularly carry credit card debt. The average balance? A whopping $15,000, according to data from the Federal Reserve and NerdWallet.
The American Dream isn't possible without understanding how to save, invest and use debt wisely. Yet we mostly leave it up to people to figure what to do with their money on their own. No wonder the No. 1 place people under 55 get their financial tips from is a relative or friend, according to a survey by E*Trade. In other words, financial education is still very much a "learn it at home" activity.
The reason why this is a huge problem is because America places almost the entire burden of life's biggest financial decisions on the shoulders of individuals. It starts with whether to go to college and take out a student loan. The average debt load is now $29,000.
Then people get out into the world and start working (hopefully) and have to navigate choosing health care and insurance plans, not to mention when and how to start saving for retirement.
"We need to start in K-12 schools. Any year we delay by not adding financial education, one more generation is going out of high school without those skills and knowledge" says Annamaria Lusardi, a professor at George Washington University and one of the nation's leading experts on financial literacy.
Evidence suggests people aren't making great choices. Common advice is to aim for at least $1 million in retirement savings. Yet the typical American family has just over $100,000 saved for retirement by their early 60s -- a mere 10% of the recommended amount. While there are encouraging signs that Millennials are saving earlier for retirement than prior generations, most are putting away far less than the recommended amount (10% of your salary).
Financial education alone won't fix all of the problems Americans face. But consider that since schools invested in sex education in the 1980s and 1990s, teen pregnancies have declined dramatically. Imagine what could happen if people learned the basics about money.
Only 17 states currently require students to take a personal finance 101-type class, according to the Council for Economic Education. Even then, the programs are generally done in one or two grades only. It's not drilled into students' minds year after year, like sex ed.
The reality is rich kids tend to be a lot more financially literate than working class kids. Wealthy kids learn about money at home -- or at their private schools. Poor kids do not. It's yet another reminder why the "friends and family" plan to learn about money is so flawed.
As this new school year starts, here's a cause worth fighting for: ask why financial ed isn't part of your local school's curriculum.
For more information on how to be smart with your finances, check out CNNMoney's "Money Essentials" guide.