By Josh Sanburn
Oct. 25, 2001
Did your parents constantly argue over money when you were growing up? If so, it may have something to do with all that credit card debt you’ve racked up.
A new study by researchers from East Carolina University surveyed more than 400 college students about their finances. While gender and class year were the top predictors of the number of credit cards they owned, the next was whether their parents argued about money.
According to the study, published online in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, upperclassmen were almost four times as likely to have two or more credit cards than freshmen and sophomores, and females were more than twice as likely as males to have at least two cards. Those findings may not be terribly surprising. But the study’s authors also surveyed college students about whether their parents regularly argued over money, and that revealed some interesting results.
Students who specifically responded that “my parents usually argued about finances” were twice as likely to have more than two credit cards than those who said their parents didn’t argue over money, and three times as likely to have a large amount of debt.
You might suspect that a lack of funds contributed to both the fighting and debt levels, but when the study’s authors controlled for income, the results were the same. Even relatively wealthy kids of parents who fought over money had higher debt levels.
While the authors didn’t come to any definite conclusions about why quarrelsome parents have such a negative impact on their children’s borrowing patterns, they suspect the kids are unintentionally copying their parents’ actions. ”Kids growing up in that sort of atmosphere may be witnessing some unhealthy financial decisions,” says Adam Hancock, co-author of the study. “And they tend to act out those same behaviors.”
The findings are consistent with a long line of studies that show children who come from households with substance abuse often end up being adicted in adulthood. Similarly, those who have been abused as a child often abuse their own children.
Hancock also suggested that college students whose parents argued over money may have a hard time communicating with their parents when they run into financial problems themselves — further perpetuating their own debt and credit card issues.
“If they grew up like that and they’re now in college making their own financial decisions, chances are higher for them to to have multiple credit cards and higher debt,” says Hancock. “Parents are the number one way they’re going to learn about finances, and if they can just talk about them in a healthy way, it’s going to help.”
Josh Sanburn @joshsanburn
Josh Sanburn is a Time.com reporter and producer.