One of many things the crisis in subprime mortgages demonstrated is that Americans don't understand money very well.
Lots of people blithely signed up for adjustable-rate mortgages and were shocked when their payments went up. Others opted for mortgages at 1 percent interest and were astounded when they learned that was just a teaser rate. Still others cashed out all their home equity with repeated refinancing, then lost their homes when refinancing was no longer an option.
Sure, greedy mortgage brokers misled many borrowers. But that wouldn't have been so easy if those borrowers had had a better understanding of the cold, hard facts about money.
A national survey released last week showed that half of high school seniors don't even know that a credit card holder who makes minimum payments pays more interest than one who pays off his balance in full each month. Should we be surprised when those teenagers run up the balances on their first credit cards?
The good news is that we haven't given up on ourselves. Lots of groups are out there trying to help people make sense of the financial world, and their efforts are getting better and more numerous.
One of the newest entries in the field is a Web site — myfamilysfuture.org — from United Way of Tampa Bay, which caught my eye because I am a sucker for the kind of nifty financial tools it offers.
Click on the topic of your choice, enter your information and you get personalized answers to questions like: Should I lease or buy a car? How much of a mortgage can I afford? How big an emergency fund do I need? How can I pay off my credit card debt?
Although the target audience is people with low to moderate incomes, anyone can benefit from using tools like these to help them make smart decisions about money.
Like pretty much every other financial site, My Family's Future aims to be a storehouse of information on financial topics like home ownership, identity theft and buying a car.
But where it really has the potential to be special is in connecting people to the financial help they need. A search function allows you to match your needs with those of listed organizations.
At the moment, the list is limited to 17 organizations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, but it's just getting started. United Way is even bravely setting some standards for organizations or companies to be listed.
"We won't have 'John Smith's Investment Counseling Service,' " promised Mark Holmgren, United Way executive vice president. "We want people to trust that these organizations have been screened."
Holmgren said several ideas are under discussion for expanding the Web site, including a section aimed at young people and a section for people who are in debt trouble.
"It's unbelievable how little people know about personal finance; sometimes it's scary," said Dan Mahurin, chief executive of SunTrust Bank, Tampa Bay, which provided the capital to launch the Web site with a $69,000 donation last year and is continuing as lead sponsor.
"This fits well with the SunTrust philosophy that the way you build the bank is by building your community. If people can use this to improve their lives and step up the economic ladder, that's a good thing."Holmgren said.
United Way will market the Web site through employers, schools, child care centers and libraries.