Recently I looked at some research suggesting that the typical American has poor health insurance plan literacy. A scholarly paper by George Loewenstein, a Carnegie Mellon professor and 12 co-authors, found that only 14 percent of surveyed adults answered correctly four multiple choice questions about the basics of their health plan coverage involving deductibles, copays, out-of-pocket limits and coinsurance.
Similarly, the average American worker confronts a bewildering array of retirement savings plan options, including 401(k) and Roth-401(k) plans, as well as Roth-IRAs and traditional IRAs. Investing those retirement savings contributions smartly is increasingly critical to a comfortable retirement. But it's hard for the average worker to do well.
For instance, economists Annamaria Lusardi of Dartmouth College and Olivia Mitchell of the Wharton School noted in a recent paper that among respondents to a large financial literacy survey "only half knew that mutual funds do not pay a guaranteed rate of return, and 56 percent knew that 'over the long-term, stocks have the highest rate of return on money invested.' "
In essence, policymakers are requiring consumers to be more knowledgeable and to take on more decisionmaking risk in many parts of life, especially finance.
The trend is a mistake for a variety of reasons. Among the more important is that the trend ignores how busy Americans are these days. In 2009, the average two-parent family worked 26 percent more hours than in 1975, according to the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Until policymakers change their approach, the personal finance implication of the current time crunch is to take time into consideration when managing money.
For one thing, a money management strategy that pays off well for a semiretired teacher might be too much to attempt for a new teacher with two young kids in the house.
More importantly, keep your financial products simple.
The risks and rewards of simple investments are easy to grasp and monitor. The expenses associated with such vanilla offerings are low.
Favor old-fashioned savings over complex hedges. Automate your savings as much as possible. Term life insurance usually trumps variable universal life. Stick with broad-based low-cost high-quality index funds. And so on.
With this approach, you'll have more time for other things than managing money.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace," commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.