It's hard to argue with a financial expert's contention that "people have forgotten what it's like to sock money away" or her conclusion that "we need to get back in touch with that."
The question is how people lost the savings habit.
Sheila Bair, a Kansas University alumna who now is chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., reminded a KU audience Monday night of the value of saving money and curbing the use of credit. In an interview with the Journal-World earlier in the day, she also referred to the "values of our Depression-era parents." Those, she said, included "saving for a rainy day, building wealth and perhaps making some sacrifices on immediate consumption to save a little more for longer term economic health."
It's not like people who lived through the Great Depression had a lot of choice when it came to learning about thrift. Jobs and money were so scarce that people worked for food or asked for handouts. If they had a few pennies in their pocket, they knew that money might have to pay for food for several days; they weren't about to blow it all on one meal.
Saving back then was a matter of survival. Many people lost their homes to foreclosure when they couldn't pay the mortgage. Memories of those days didn't fade easily, even during the more prosperous times that followed World War II, but the memories, along with the people who lived through the Depression, are dying out now.
With the help of liberal lending policies, and endless credit card offers, Americans have lost the art of delayed gratification. If they want something, they want it now. If they can't pay for it now, someone is more than happy to let them pay for it later - and collect some interest in the meantime. Those doing the lending have some requirements, but the main responsibility for controlling debt still lies with individual borrowers, who may not always understand the long-term consequences of their short-term spending.
What feeds the "spend it now" mentality? Are people so pessimistic about the future that they figure they might as well enjoy themselves while they can? Or are they so optimistic about the future that they think their earning power easily will expand to cover whatever debt they accumulate now? Maybe they simply have so much faith in the federal government and its taxpayer-funded social services that they plan to be taken care of by someone else in their old age or whenever they run out of money?
Bair applauded a new KU business course in which students learn how to keep a balanced checkbook, save for retirement and avoid credit debt. Having to teach such a course at the college level seems no less remedial than the basic math courses that state universities consider so burdensome. Financial literacy courses should be part of every high school curriculum in the state.
Recent stories about mortgage foreclosures are a timely reminder of the dangers of trying to live beyond your means. With any luck, we won't have to go through another Depression to learn the importance of putting some money aside for a rainy day.