Financial Literacy and Small Business Success

Businesses and individuals alike must make complicated financial decisions throughout their lives.  Sadly, the volumes of research which explore aspects of financial and debt “literacy” among individuals and small business owners reflects that a growing portion of the population lacks the understanding to make these decisions.  Questions surrounding this issue often focus on the educational aspects, and the positive impacts which might be created through greater levels of understanding of accounting fundamentals and the basics of financial management.  Particularly in smaller businesses, where there is a much closer relationship between business and personal finances, understanding even basic financial concepts is likely to lead to “better financial decisions and household well-being”.

a strong relationship between debt literacy and both financial experiences and debt loads[1]

Because many educational offerings tie to specific training approaches and methodologies, it becomes very difficult to measure the usefulness of the skills developed separately from the effectiveness of the training methodology.   Trainers may employ specific devices or tools which facilitate their delivery, and often times these tools become more of a focus than the actual educational content.  On the other hand, a program might provide a great deal of information in a fairly raw form, yet this information is unlikely to deliver a useful result if the participants do not understand it or cannot grasp the concepts introduced. The challenge is not only with providing the education, but finding a balance with the information and the outcomes; understanding how basic the training might be and still provide a measurable, beneficial impact.

In the study Keeping it Simple: Financial Literacy and Rules of Thumb, the authors discuss the benefits of teaching small business owners a series of fundamental “rules of thumb” for management of the business, rather than delving into the complexities of comprehensive business accounting and finance.  Teaching participants about the basics of double entry bookkeeping, cash management and investing, and then coupling that information with instruction on essential processes to follow resulted in significant improvements in financial management and improved the accuracy and consistency of reported data.

the rule-of-thumb training changes actual business management practices[2]


Outcomes show consistently positive when a simpler approach to developing “financial literacy” is provided to small business owners, and particularly when the training and content is oriented towards the characteristics of the participants.   The highest level of result was achieved with business owners with a low level of financial “sophistication”, with a limited interest in financial or accounting training, and with limited baseline business practice structure.  These were the participants who were found to be most likely to implement what they learned in the “rule of thumb” training.

The conclusion drawn from these discussions is that financial education and basic accounting training can become a key factor in helping business owners not only account and report better for their businesses, but provides an essential foundation for understanding how to grow the business and create profitability.   Accounting professionals working with small business clients should recognize that an effort to provide a level of education to clients is likely to not only help those clients make better business (and personal) financial decisions, it will also increase the chances that the client will keep better books and provide the accounting professional with more consistently useful information to work from.

After all, the goal of the accounting professional working with small business clients is to help those small businesses become successful businesses, isn’t it?

Joanie Mann Bunny FeetMake Sense?



Debt Literacy, Financial Experiences, and Overindebtedness | Annamaria Lusardi and Peter Tufano| NBER Working Paper No. 14808|March 2009

[2] | Keeping it Simple: Financial Literacy and Rules of Thumb | By ALEJANDRO DREXLER, GREG FISCHER, AND ANTOINETTE SCHOAR

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