“The lack of financial literacy is a major problem in the United States,” said Michael Goodman, an associate professor and chairman of the public policy department at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “It affects not just people who are poorly educated, but also people who received some of the finest educations in the world.”

The literacy gap is particularly wide for younger adults, who have less experience with money and can easily fall into debt through credit cards or student loans. A 2009 study by student loan giant Sallie Mae found only about 18 percent of college students with credit cards paid them off completely every month, while the rest likely racked up interest costs or fees by carrying a balance or paying their bills late.

A survey of Harvard students by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union found that only 10 percent had any formal financial education.