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Poll: Dad's a pushover for kids looking for big debt help

Poll says men likelier to aid kids in deep debt (but don't mention it's for gambling)

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So, kid, you're broke?

Need to call home and ask for a big loan?

How much do you need?

Pray that Dad answers.

That's a key finding of a new CreditCards.com poll that, in these credit-crunched times, looked at the generosity and attitudes of many young folks' lenders of last resort -- their parents.

The survey found that fathers tend to be a considerably softer touch than mothers when it comes to bailing kids out of big financial trouble.

Not that anyone -- fathers, mothers, whatever -- was particularly eager to be placed in that situation. It's just not a good time for that sort of thing.

"These tough, frightening, challenging economic times have forced most people into becoming more cautious and discriminating concerning any spending," said Barbara Udell, a family and individual therapist who holds degrees in social work and behavioral health education. "And most parents had hoped that they taught their children the value of money and how to handle it."

Still, 21 percent of men with children said they would give their kids more than $20,000 to pay off credit card bills and other debts, even if the dads had no expectation of ever getting paid back -- though many would accompany their checks with objections and reprimands. ("For crying out loud, Junior, are you out of your mind?")

Only 12 percent of mothers said they would write those kinds of checks for their chicks.

The gap broadens when parents expect to be repaid eventually. (Uh-huh. And the Cubs will win the World Series.) In that case, 30 percent of the men would give their debt-laden kids $20,000 or more, but only 15 percent of women would do the same.

Why the disparity?

"Dads identify with the burden of debt if they are the main breadwinners," said Dr. Dotty Sasmor, a psychologist and family therapist in the Miami area. "Also, dads may identify with their own youthful debt behavior, especially if their dads bailed them out."

Oh, one other thing.

"And possibly," Sasmor said, "dads are just pushovers."

The scientific poll was conducted for CreditCards.com between Aug. 28 and 30, 2009, by GfK Roper. Pollsters interviewed 1,004 women and men from various parts of the country through random-digit dialing. (See poll methodology.)

Some won't pay -- period
Most of the respondents had children, but some did not, and -- as one might expect -- that sometimes influenced their responses.

Interestingly, a sizeable number of adults of both genders -- with and without children -- volunteered without prompting that they wouldn't help at all if their real or theoretical children racked up debts.

Period. Absolutely not. No matter how much or how little was owed.

Women who do not have children (and, hypothetically, were not expecting to be repaid) were most likely to feel that way. Twenty percent of those women said, in essence, "no way, no how," compared with 13 percent of men in the same category.

Again, this is not easy to explain, but psychologists were not surprised.

"This is more complicated," Sasmor said. "Some factors, like the ages of parents, the ages of children and the parents' own financial situation may play a role. Given that, I think most women have very strong values about money -- money representing safety, security, freedom, love, etc."

How much debt parents would repay

If your child got into debt and asked for help, how much would you be willing to help them out? Fathers tend to be more likely than mothers to repay large debts. The chart below breaks down the percentage of parents who say they would help their children, by the maximum amount they would give. An expectation that the money will be repaid increases the odds it will be given.

Udell put it more bluntly:

"Experience," she said. "In these cases, they have been disappointed too many times by their children, who did not follow through on taking responsibility for their actions through the years."

Medical debt, yes. But gambling ...
Most parents, of course, did not adopt that absolutist view.

And other results of the poll strongly suggested that, in these difficult economic times, most American adults have a reasonably balanced and carefully nuanced set of standards when it comes to their children and their children's debts.

They are likely to help in some situations, but not in others. So, here is the bottom line for the younger generation:

If you run into trouble with student loans, medical bills, your rent or mortgage payment or even your auto loan, give Mom and especially Dad a call. They're probably willing to help, if you're willing to endure an earful.

But listen here, buster or darling, if you get over your head with gambling bills and maybe even your credit card bills, you are on your own.

The CreditCards.com poll found that nearly 66 percent of mothers and 61 percent of fathers would never help their kids with gambling debts. Another 23 percent of mothers and 30 percent of fathers would "somewhat object" to helping kids come out from under gambling liabilities.

When it comes to credit card bills, 29 percent of mothers and nearly 26 percent of fathers would never help, and more than 42 percent of mothers and 51 percent of fathers would object somewhat to doing so.

It's an entirely different story when it comes to debts that seem more productive and socially acceptable.

Seventy percent of fathers and nearly 59 percent of mothers would have little objection to helping their children pay off student loans, a majority of both genders feels the same way about mortgage payments or rent, and a plurality of men and women would have little objection to helping with auto loans.

Obviously, parents are aware of the legitimate financial pressures confronting their children during this economic downturn.

"This seems clearer to me as a question of values," Sasmor said. "Gambling and credit card debt are seen as irresponsible, while student loans, owning a home and a car are much more socially valued."

At the same time, another survey released last week concludes that many parents are worried about the money management skills of their children as they leave home.

Parents believe they are responsible for their children's financial education, but they don't feel confident that they are qualified to assist in that regard, according to a survey conducted for the Consumer Federation of America. "There is a capability gap," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the federation, which represents 280 consumer groups with a combined membership of 50 million people.

Repay THAT debt? NEVER!

Parents are less likely to help their children repay some types of debts than others. The percentages below are how often adults say they would never help with a specific type of debt. A majority say they would never repay a gambling debt; about one in four say they would not help repay a credit card debt. Medical debt was least likely to draw a negative reaction. Adults who say they have children were in all cases more likley to say "never."

"Nearly all parents feel responsible for the financial education of their children, but little more than half are very confident their kids will leave home knowing how to manage money, credit and debt," Brobeck said.

The problem is particularly acute when it comes to credit cards, some experts said.

"When we look at credit cards and young people, we see particular problems," said Will deHoo, president of FoolProofMe.com, which provides financial literacy tools for young people. "Most credit card operations project cards as a way toward freedom. We project them as a way to destruction, if you're not careful."

Digging deeper into the CreditCards.com poll, the findings also suggested a measure of class distinction when it came to the issue of parents, children and debt.

The rich, who can most afford generosity, and the poor, who have the most familiarity with the weight of extreme indebtedness, are most likely to pony up $20,000 or more for their cash-challenged kids.

People with middle-class incomes of $30,000 to $50,000 are the least likely to do so -- perhaps because these parents, engaged daily in the effort to keep their financial heads above water, are especially interested in teaching their kids to sink or swim on their own.

"They know what it takes to have been successful in their lives, through hard work, saving and keeping an ever-vigilant eye on spending," Udell said. "When they have deviated from that and spent unwisely, they remember well the consequences."

Other highlights of the CreditCards.com poll include:

  • Though men are far more willing to help shoulder their kids debts of $20,000 or more, women are somewhat more forgiving than men when the debts come in at lower thresholds (below $1,000 for those who don't expect to be repaid and $5,000 for those who do).
  • It is the sheer weight of that $20,000-plus burden that seems to be the determining factor in the fathers' greater willingness to help. "Their experiences in this regard may be similar to their own when growing up and maturing financially," Udell said of fathers. "So they have better understanding of the situation."
  • Adults who do not have children scored higher on virtually every measure of willingness to help, when seen from the perspective of a debtor child. One of many examples: One in five childless women and nearly one in four childless men said they would pay off a $20,000-or-higher debt of a theoretical child. 

The 'just say no' crowd
In addition, the percentage of adults who said they would not help their children repay any debts under any circumstances remained relatively stable regardless of  whether they expected to be repaid.

This suggests that many adult Americans stand on a rather firm principle when it comes to such things.

That principle?

"Actions have consequences," Sasmor said, "so be responsible.

"I would hope that parents have been teaching their children about money from the start -- allowances, chores, responsibilities -- and that, by college, they hope their children have similar values," she said. "When their young adult child first gets into financial trouble, parents can be supportive, perhaps decide if and how much they want to help and use the crisis as a teachable moment," Sasmor said.

"But, the second time, the child should have to bear the consequences of his or her actions."

Poll methodology:
The survey was conducted from Aug. 28-30, 2009, by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media on behalf of CreditCards.com. Random digit dialing phone interviews were completed with 1,004 adults, all 18 years of age or older. The raw data were then 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 margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample.

See related: CreditCards.com poll: 40 percent of Americans losing sleep over finances, How Dad affects your debt, financial decisions

Published: September 15, 2009


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