For many Americans, when it comes to how we manage our finances, mother really knows best.
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A scientific poll commissioned by CreditCards.com found that adults most often identified their mothers as the family member with the most influence over what they know about managing money and handling personal finances. More than a quarter (26%) of the 1,000 adults surveyed gave mom top billing for shaping their financial habits. Dad was a close second with 21%.
Mom's close interaction with the kids means through her actions she's the primary teacher about money matters for many of us.
"Moms do handle a lot of the day-to-day spending decisions, and that's what kids see," says Patricia Seaman, a spokeswoman for the National Endowment for Financial Education.
"When they're young, they are dragged to everything with mom, for school, shopping for groceries, for clothes, to the garden center and to the ATM. It's not just spending decisions. They may also be exposed to money handling habits, like using cash or credit cards or checks," Seaman says. "Often during those trips, mom may be talking to themselves, saying things like, 'This is on sale this week. Maybe this is a better product.'"
Adds Leslie E. Linfield, executive director of the Institute for Financial Literacy in Portland, Maine: "People, men and women, are going to look to mom first for advice on finance. We know that changes when you ask about investing. People are more likely to ask dad, or granddad, about investing. When you get to the general topic of personal finance, mom's the expert."
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The poll was conducted April 21-23, 2011, by GfK Roper, a nationally recognized polling firm that used random-digit dialing to select 1,004 Americans, roughly half men and half women, for the survey. The margin of error on the results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. See poll methodology.
The poll asked respondents to think about which family members had the most influence on their own financial habits and on what they know about managing money. The poll found the following chain of influence (in descending order):
- Mom (26%).
- Dad (21%).
- Self (16%).
- Spouse (13%).
- No one (9%).
- Sister (2%).
- Grandfather (2%).
- Brother (1%).
- Both parents equally (1%).
- Grandmother (1%).
- Son (1%).
- Daughter (0.3%).
- Others (3%).
- Don't know/no response (4%).
According to the poll, mom's influence appears to be greatest when her children are closest to the nest. The poll showed that adults 18 to 24 years old were most swayed by mom's financial wizardry. Nearly half of that age group (49%) said their mothers influenced them the most. By contrast, only 14% of people 65 and older and more than a quarter (27%) of people 50 to 64 years old identified mom as the chief influencer.
Neither parent won when it came to seeking advice about day-to-day finances. When asked who in their family they are most likely to talk to about daily spending matters, one in three (29%) said they consult their spouses. Mom was identified 21% of the time and dad was third at 11%. Other relatives held much less significant roles: brothers, daughters and sons (3% each), grandmothers and sisters (2% each), and grandfathers (0.3%). Nearly a fifth of respondents (19%) said they weren't likely to talk to anyone else about their daily finances.
We also asked who people talked to about big-ticket purchases, and there, too, parental influence waned. Spouses were first in line for talking about major purchases, such as a house or car. More than a third of the respondents (37%) would consult a spouse about big-ticket items. Only 14% seek mom's advice and 12% go to dad. Nearly a fifth of respondents (18%) said they consulted with no one else.
Other family members held much less sway over major purchases: brothers (4%), sisters (3%), sons and daughters (2% each), grandmothers (1%), both parents equally (0.4%) and grandfathers (0.4%).
The gender gap
The poll results showed that men and women are split along traditional gender lines when it comes to who they view as models for their own financial habits. Women were slightly more likely than men to follow mom's lead (30% versus 23%) while men were slightly more likely than women to go along with dad's guidance (25% versus 18%). Similarly, among those who said they were influenced most by a spouse, women were more likely (16% versus 10%) to look to their husbands as financial role models than men were to emulate their wives. The same type of gender bias was evident when seeking advice about big-ticket purchases. Men were nearly twice more likely than women (16% versus 9%) to seek out dad's advice on home or car purchases.
Parents -- either mom or dad -- were identified as the primary influencers by nearly half (48%) of those polled. Those results mirror data collected by the National Endowment for Financial Education. The nonprofit group promotes financial literacy through its smartaboutmoney.org website. Long-range surveys of young adults tracked since 2007 by the foundation with the help of researchers at the University of Arizona show parents are the primary influencers of our financial behaviors and attitudes. That research does not give a breakdown for which parent carries more influence.
"The stronger the relationship with the parents, the higher the sense of well-being, not only financially but in general, and the fewer risky financial behaviors young adults are likely to take, like using one credit card to pay off another one, going without health insurance to manage their cash flow or using high interest loans," says Seaman, the foundation's director of communications.
Linfield cites an historical basis for mom edging out dad in financial influence. She points to the 1841 publication of "A Treatise on Domestic Economy," written by Catherine Beecher. The book was the basis of modern day home economics courses and taught women how to run their households, including managing money. "This would have been the book that you would have given to young women when they were leaving home to start a marriage."
Over the years, moms typically have been the role models children see managing their family resources. "Traditionally, moms really did control the family finances," Linfield says. "Men earned it and women managed it."
Amy Tiemann, a mother and author of the book "Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family," agrees that moms set the standard. "It's more of what our children see us doing with our behavior and not as much as what we say."
Tiemann says she learned well from her own mother, who was a bookkeeper. "I knew my mom was very responsible. I knew my parents wouldn't charge anything on a credit card that they couldn't pay off right away. When I went to college and got that magical first credit card, I never overspent. I knew that was what my mom wanted to me to do because that's not what she did. She was a very positive example. I've seen other family members who have had problems with money. It made me not want to follow in their footsteps."
'Influence' isn't necessarily good
Financial literacy and credit counseling experts were quick to point out that there can be two sides to parental influence. Depending on how well -- or poorly -- mom and dad managed their own financial affairs, their influence could be a tale of the good, the bad and the ugly.
"If a mother is telling her children to, 'Make sure you save carefully, and make sure you really need it before you buy it,' but mom goes out regularly to the mall and has a big impulse purchase, they are going to learn more from what they are observing than what she says," says Tiemann, founder of the mojomom.com website, an online forum and resource for mothers.
The CreditCards.com poll showed one out of four adults (25%) said they consulted neither parent and either relied on themselves or no one else to influence their financial habits. Financial literacy experts speculate that these people may have had negative parental role models. "They are going out and getting financial information on their own because they don't want to replicate what they've seen, making a conscious decision that, 'I'm not going to live that way,'" says Linfield.
Linfield notes that learning bad financial habits can be seen in patterns across generations of families using high-cost, money lending establishments that proliferate in urban and inner-city communities.
"You have multiple generations where they are cashing the check at the convenience store, which is more expensive than a bank or a credit union, because that's what mom did and that's what grandma did. They don't know otherwise, or they've been taught not to trust those [banking] institutions," Linfield says. "The kids have learned that that's the lender of first choice. If you need money for rent, you go and pawn grandma's engagement ring."
The way to break the cycle of bad money handling, Linfield says, is through financial literacy in the schools and programs such as the Jump Start Coalition, which is working to improve student knowledge of personal finance. She said making personal finance instruction mandatory for families receiving any type of public assistance may also help improve money management skills in low-income families.
The changing structure of the American family -- away from traditional two-parent homes and toward households where only one parent is present (such as in divorce or single motherhood) -- complicates the question of who most influences our financial habits, says Erica K. Jackson, director of the Center for Financial and Consumer Outreach at Penn State Erie.
"If there is a mom and dad present, you will have more of an opportunity to be influenced by dad. My dad influenced me. It wasn't my mother," Jackson says. "He was the one who wrote the checks and went to the bank to deposit the money. But my husband was the exact opposite. His mother raised him alone. He didn't have the option of having both mom and dad."
She says the poll results may have gravitated toward mom as the influencer because a segment of the adults in the survey may have been reared in female-headed households. "It was that female figure who really had the influence because there was no male figure to impact them or influence them," Jackson says. "It's more complicated than these [poll] numbers show."
Seaman offered this piece of advice for moms concerned about passing on good financial habits to their children: "On Mother's Day, think about what it is that you want your kids to know. Figure out what they are seeing you do and what they're hearing you say and whether that's really what you want them to see or hear."
The survey was conducted April 21-23, 2011, by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media on behalf of CreditCards.com. Random digit dialing phone interviews were completed with 1,004 adults 18 years old or older. The raw data were weighted by a custom designed computer program that automatically developed a weighting factor for each respondent, employing five variables: age, sex, education, race and geographic region.
The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points on the full sample.
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