For one in five Americans, dear ol' dad is the first person they look to as a role model for how they handle their own personal finances.

A scientific poll created by CreditCards.com found that 21% of adults identified dad as the family member with the most influence over what they know about managing money and handling personal finances. The poll of 1,004 adults showed that moms may have slightly more influence than dads, with 26% of those surveyed giving their mothers top billing for shaping their financial habits.

Financial literacy experts and credit counselors say both parents play critical roles in shaping how children manage their own money.

According to Patricia Seaman, director of communications for the National Endowment for Financial Education, children grow up seeing their parents interact about financial decisions and adapt their own financial habits based on what they see playing out in their own homes.

"Moms do handle a lot of the day-to-day spending decisions, and that's what kids see," Seaman says. "And bigger decisions do involve the spouse, and kids see that dad gets involved when it's a really big deal."

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%).

Dad may not be to the go-to parent for financial advice, but as a 2009 CreditCards.com poll showed, men were a softer touch and appeared to be more likely to help their children repay debts than women. That poll asked the following: If a child got into debt and asked for help, how much would the person be willing to help them out? Fathers were more likely than mothers (21% versus 12%) to repay large credit card bills and other debts for their adult children.

Experts said the reason could be that dads identify more with the burden of debt and may have themselves been bailed out by their own fathers.

Family gender bias
The most recent poll showed dad's influence appears to be greater for sons (25%) than for daughters (18%). The gender bias was similar for mothers: their daughters were more likely to identify them as key influencers of personal finance habits (30%) than their sons (23%).

The poll showed that high-income earners were more likely to be swayed by their father's financial habits than their lower-income counterparts. Adult children earning more than $50,000 a year were more likely (28%) to say their father influenced them than adult children earning less than $20,000 a year (15%). It was almost the opposite with mothers. The largest segment of adults who said Mom influenced them were people earning $20,000 to $29,000 a year (37%), compared to only 24% of people earning more than $50,000 a year.

Dad's influence took third place behind spouses and moms when it came to big-ticket purchases, such as a house or car. Only 1 in 10 people said they would consult their dads first. Moms held only slightly more influence with 14% while spouses had the greatest sway with 37%. Financial experts say this is how it should be if you're in a relationship. Such money decisions should be made jointly by the couple.

Positive habits matter most
Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says no matter which family member influences us about money matters, it's important that what they teach us are good financial habits.

In its annual financial literacy survey, the NFCC found that 41% of adults gave themselves poor grades (C, D or F) for their knowledge of personal finance. However, 42% of adults said they learned the most about personal finance from their parents.

"The good news is that Americans recognize and are willing to admit their financial deficiencies," Cunningham said in a statement. "Now it is up to them to do something about it, particularly if they have children who will invariably model their parents' financial behavior."

She added: "The NFCC calls on parents to stop the cycle of financial illiteracy by improving their own level of financial expertise, thus enhancing the likelihood that their children will someday be able to give themselves a grade of A in this important life skills category."

Poll methodology

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 three percentage points on the full sample.

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