Financial education for adults

Evidence Rating  
Some Evidence
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  

Adult financial education programs often cover topics such as basic budgeting, bank use, and credit management. Specialized education programs can focus on preparing for divorce, bankruptcy, credit building and counseling, homeownership, retirement, or other relevant topics. Financial education may be provided in groups or as one-on-one coaching, in person, over the phone, or online. Programs can be offered through non-profit organizations, for-profits, government entities, and employers, and often serve individuals with lower incomes.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Improved financial literacy

  • Improved financial behavior

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that financial education for adults improves financial literacy and increases positive financial behaviors1, 2, 3, 4. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Financial education can increase budgeting and saving, including saving for retirement1, 2, 3, but may not change borrowing behavior, such as loan defaults2, 3. However, effects vary widely2, 3. More intense programs may be more effective2. A study of two financial coaching programs for people with low to moderate incomes suggests it may increase saving and budgeting, and decrease debt5.

Experts suggest that programs designed for specific audiences, focused on a distinct topic, and delivered just before a relevant financial event may be more likely to change participants’ financial behavior than other programs2, 6. A large study of military personnel and small studies examining programs that support survivors of domestic abuse, individuals participating in an Individual Development Account (IDA) program, and individuals with low incomes living in subsidized housing appear to support this recommendation7, 8, 9, 10, 11. One-on-one style counseling or coaching that encourages participant involvement and includes goal-setting and tracking may also increase the likelihood of changing participants’ financial behavior and increase savings and paying down debt5, 12.

Available evidence suggests financial education interventions may be less effective for people with low incomes2, 13, though recent work shows this gap in effectiveness may be decreasing1. One narrative suggests that differences in financial behaviors and knowledge between racial and ethnic groups in the US contribute to racial wealth disparities and suggests education to change individual behaviors may reduce the racial wealth divide. However, changing individual behaviors alone does not remove the structural barriers to basic financial services, such as opening a bank account or securing a mortgage, that disproportionately impact people of color and those with low incomes14, 15. Additionally, financial education alone does not increase wealth for people with low incomes, so their economic circumstances limit their opportunities to engage in positive financial behaviors, such as saving for retirement15. Comprehensive interventions that also address the root causes of racial wealth disparities are needed in conjunction with financial education for people with low incomes in order to reduce the racial wealth divide15.

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Several government agencies provide financial tools or curriculums. The Financial Literacy and Education Commission of the US Department of the Treasury, for example, has a national financial education website, (US Treasury-FLEC Resources). The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, which has a financial education component16 and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) offers Money Smart, a financial education curriculum that can be used by individuals, financial institutions, or other organizations (FDIC-Money smart). In 2021, 37 states and Washington, DC engaged in legislation related to improving financial literacy17.

Private non-profits, such as the National Endowment for Financial Education, provide financial education resources and training tools for youth and adult learners at all income levels (NEFE).

Implementation Resources

CFPB - Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Resources for financial educators.

FDIC-Money smart - Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Money Smart: A financial education program. - Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Consumer protection basics. - US Department of the Treasury (US Treasury). Federal Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC). - National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Consumer assistance center: Financial resources

NEFE - National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE).


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1 NBER-Kaiser 2020 - Kaiser T, Lusardi A, Menkhoff L, Urban CJ. Financial education affects financial knowledge and downstream behaviors. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2020: Working Paper 27057.

2 Kaiser 2017 - Kaiser T, Menkhoff L. Does financial education impact financial literacy and financial behavior, and if so, when? World Bank Economic Review. 2017;31(3):611-630.

3 Miller 2015* - Miller S, Williams J, Cutbush S, et al. Evaluation of the Start Strong initiative: Preventing teen dating violence and promoting healthy relationships among middle school students. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2015;56(2 Suppl 2):S14–S19.

4 Fernandes 2014 - Fernandes D, Lynch JG, Netemeyer RG. Financial literacy, financial education, and downstream financial behaviors. Management Science. 2014:1-23.

5 Urban-Theodos 2015 - Theodos B, Simms M, Treskon M, et al. An evaluation of the impacts and implementation approaches of financial coaching program. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2015.

6 FRB-Hathaway 2008 - Hathaway I, Khatiwada S. Do financial education programs work? Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. 2008: Working Paper.

7 Skimmyhorn 2016* - Skimmyhorn W. Assessing financial education: Evidence from boot camp. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 2016;8(2):322-343.

8 Hetling 2015* - Hetling A, Postmus JL, Kaltz C. A randomized controlled trial of a financial literacy curriculum for survivors of intimate partner violence. Journal of Family and Economic Issues. 2015.

9 Reich 2015* - Reich CM, Berman JS. Do financial literacy classes help? An experimental assessment in a low-income population. Journal of Social Service Research. 2015;41(2):193-203.

10 Grinstein-Weiss 2015* - Grinstein-Weiss M, Guo S, Reinertson V, Russell B. Financial education and savings outcomes for low-income IDA participants: Does age make a difference? Journal of Consumer Affairs. 2015;49(1):156-185.

11 Collins 2012 - Collins JM. The impacts of mandatory financial education: Evidence from a randomized field study. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 2012;95:146-158.

12 Mende 2015* - Mende M, van Doorn J. Coproduction of transformative services as a pathway to improved consumer well-being: Findings from a longitudinal study on financial counseling. Journal of Service Research. 2015;18(3):351-368.

13 Fernandez 2014* - Fernandez J, Holman T, Pepper JV. The impact of living wage ordinances on urban crime. 2014;53(3):478-500.

14 Brookings-Klein 2021 - Klein A, Karaflos M. Universal bank accounts necessary for families to bank on Child Tax Credit. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution; 2021.

15 FRB-Hamilton 2017 - Hamilton D, Darity WA. The political economy of education, financial literacy, and the racial wealth gap. Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis Review. 2017;99(1):59-76.

16 US HUD-FSS - US Department of Housing and Urban Development (US HUD). Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program.

17 NCSL-Financial Literacy 2021 - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Financial Literacy 2021 Legislation. 2021.

Date Last Updated