Drawing up false parallels and correlations is likely one of the best parts of being in the survey business. A recent survey by the American Institute of CPAs and Harris Interactive discovered this one: young adults check their social media accounts more than they check their bank accounts. For shame! When guessing why young people are bad with money, there are hard questions — what might it be like to grow up in a booming economy kept afloat by debt and have everything but the debts stripped away from you right at the moment you’re supposed to be financially independent? — and there are easy ones — how much time do the youngs spend in front of the computer, and what do they do there? This survey seems to have taken the latter route.
Harris and AICPA found that 54 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds check their social media accounts on a daily basis. In fact, those who check Facebook (or whatever) daily do so 7.5 times daily, on average. And yet, just 17 percent of young adults check their bank accounts daily. Perhaps they found this surprising — we don’t. Of the 17 percent who look at their finances on a daily basis, they do so three times, on average — less than half as many times as we check our Facebook (or whatever). Why these two activities should even be considered in the same breath seems at least a little intellectually dishonest. Both of these things happen at a computer, yes, but that’s where their similarities start and end.
Imagine in 1995 if AICPA surveyed Gen Xers to find out how frequently they visit their bank branch and how frequently they visited their coffee shop, then shame them for doing one daily and the other weekly. But they would never do this for the precise reason that it makes no sense — time spent at one activity is not necessarily time wasted not doing another. Even if both of these activities take place in front of a computer, it does not necessarily follow that they are at all similar. Furthermore, before internet banking, would it be expected of people to check their bank accounts daily? Who would do this? Old people?
Seems plausible, but guess what percentage of older people check their bank accounts every day? (AICPA shared the full findings with us, which they did not in the press release.) Survey says: 14 percent.
So if anything is going on here at all, it’s that young people, attached to our devices as we are, check our mostly-empty bank accounts more than grown-ups check their comparatively swollen savings. Maybe we’re a bit more on edge, and for good reason. Or maybe we’re more computer savvy, also for good reason. But there seems to be little reason for CPAs to be tongue-clicking over this, when it was the accountants — our best number crunchers! — who failed to find a real correlation here.
Checking in vs. checking accounts
That said, the various differences between checking your bank account balance and checking your Facebook (or whatever) warrant mentioning; the two are vastly different, and their vast differences might help explain why young people are reluctant to check their bank accounts 7.5 times daily. One important distinction is the log-in process. On Facebook (or whatever) you simply punch in your email address and password and you’re off — you can do this, risk-free, from the office, your friend’s house, school, wherever. Try to log into your bank account, and you’ll have to remember your special username, tell it what state you opened your account, make sure a picture of a pony shows up with the word “pony” next to it, then punch in a very complex password you don’t use very frequently, and then answer various security questions with non-static answers (“What is your favorite novel?”) if you’ve logged in somewhere your bank is not familiar with. Not only is it a pain, it’s also private in the way stuff on Facebook is not, and not something that many people feel comfortable doing with strangers, co-workers or classmates nearby. For all the over-sharing we supposedly do, we rarely share our checking balance.
The other, more obvious explanation here is that checking Facebook is fun because it is populated by more friends than you actually have, and checking your bank account is not fun, because it is populated by fewer dollars than you would like to have. That said, there are excellent web-based personal finance managers out there, like Mint, which take some of the hassle out of logging into your bank account, and which are excellent tools for budgeting. Checking your bank account on a regular basis is smart not only for budgeting purposes, but also for preventing fraud. Maybe you’ll be able to do this on your watch soon, who knows? But don’t let a phone survey think you aren’t running your life like a grown-up — if anything, you’re doing better.