Financial problems span generations, so is debt in your DNA?

Some see a genetic component to money problems

Is debt in your DNA?
Is debt in your DNA?

Not only are you struggling with money, your parents and grandparents had money issues, too. You can chalk it up to coincidence or blame the living-in-debt mindset on a faulty gene or learned behavior that keeps getting passed down through generations.

Scientists, personal finance authorities and others have some valid theories about how money problems are passed down through the years. More, they have some ideas on how to overcome past patterns before it imprisons the next generation.

The nature argument
It's reasonable to wonder if some people are simply more talented at handling money and credit than others. If true, such a trait would provide them with a distinct financial advantage. For those deficient in this unique "inheritance," they'd be more apt to live with adversity.

Greg Laden, a Minnesota-based biological anthropologist and writer for ScienceBlogs, specializes in human evolution. He offers some validity to the premise that there could be a genetic connection to financial skills. "You may have a knack for managing your money that came from your parents," says Laden. "It's possible, but no one can say for sure."

What is widely acknowledged, asserts Laden, is that human beings are in the money management Stone Age. From an evolutionary perspective, people are inherently bad at resisting temptation. A credit card equipped with thousands of dollars in immediate borrowing power is similar to a kitchen groaning with groceries. When the ability to indulge is close and accessible, millions of years of natural selection usually takes over.

"I lived with hunters and gatherers in the Congo and they'd binge eat when food was plentiful," says Laden. That's what we do. Eat as much as possible whenever we can. Humans are not good at foresight. We're not selected to be good at that!"

The emotional baggage we get from our ancestors affects us and slows down our success in many different ways. Money attitudes are inherited from mom and dad, which they inherited from their mom and dad. It can be traced back many generations.

-- Bradley Nelson
Holistic physician and author

And those who do resist the lure of overspending and are prudent with little to no effort? Says Laden: "You can almost argue that they are not acting as regular humans."

That a person's financial outlook is genetically assigned is an absolute certainty, maintains Bradley Nelson, a holistic physician and author of "Emotion Code: How to Release Your Trapped Emotions for Abundant Health Love and Happiness."

"We know that emotion is in our DNA," says Nelson, who lives in St. George, Utah. "The emotional baggage we get from our ancestors affects us and slows down our success in many different ways. Money attitudes are inherited from mom and dad, which they inherited from their mom and dad. It can be traced back many generations."

Debt, then, can be assumed to be a natural and all-too-common byproduct. "My ancestors were very poor; they were potato farmers from Ireland," says Nelson, who explains that he inherited an attitude of hopelessness that he traced back 22 generations. "Most of our ancestors were broke," he says. He concludes that if an individual's predecessors didn't have a background in wealth, that person wasn't born with a predisposition for it either.

The nurture argument
The alternative argument is learned behavior. Nurture is experience, including being actively taught skills and values, and absorbing them by coexisting with family members and close community members.

Dominique Brown, a personal finance expert and self-made millionaire living in Washington, D.C., was raised with hardship in West Philadelphia by a single, struggling mother. Acceptance of debt, he believes, springs straight from your environment. Genetic predisposition or not, financial attitudes and aptitudes are transferred from grandparent to parent to child.

"It's the same reason why you've only liked a certain cereal -- if you've only been fed that, you'll have it yourself," says Brown. "Money is no different. If you've always been around people who have never saved but lived behind, you'll do that. It becomes normal, your way of life."

Like Laden's example of being compelled to gorge on  food, Brown says generational debt is largely due to the powerful desire for instant gratification. "You see stuff on TV and you want it, but you don't know how to work for it. So you borrow and it turns into big debt. That part is home-life. If you're hanging out with five people who think a certain way, you're going to be the sixth."

A disconnection to fiscal responsibility is also inherited by association, says Brown: "When debt collectors call, mommy and daddy are upset. The child won't know what happened before that, but the hate against debt collectors begins."

Adjusting that mentality is hard, says Bobbi Dempsey, founder of and author of "Degrees of Desperation: the Working Class Struggle to Pay for College." "If you come from a family or are raised by people who can't manage or can't save money, you have no reference point. At the same time, a lot of people underestimate the struggle and challenge of starting off with debt."

Dempsey herself had no close positive role models. "My grandmother (my granddad passed away early) never owned any property and the loans she had taken out were not repaid. My mom's bank account was always overdrawn. I had no concept of how to use credit cards. When I was a kid there was no one in my circle who used them. I grew up with phones being shut off, my mom dodging bill collectors, scraping together change from a young age."

If you've always been around people who have never saved but lived behind, you’ll do that. It becomes normal, your way of life.

-- Dominique Brown
Personal finance expert

Creating a less indebted, more stable generation
Opinions on how to create financially sound future generations out of longstanding economic dysfunction vary, but optimism reigns.

Got a bum deal from your ancestors that's causing you to charge too much or take out particularly expensive loans? Don't crawl under your desk to escape collectors, says Nelson. You may be driven by genetics, but an emotional examination can change the future.

Schools play a crucial role, says Laden: "The good news is that even if it's not natural, people can learn to handle money well." It's just taking the initiative to educate yourself about smart ways to manage and budget your money. 

As for your kids, talk to them, urges Brown. If your kin always lived in the red and you're a parent today, be honest and vocal about money issues with your children. "When I asked my mother about her robbing Peter to pay Paul and why she never discussed these things, she said, ‘We don't talk about money; that isn't a child's place," says Brown. "That's not right. I have a 2-year-old daughter and I have to change my family tree. Kids are great accountability partners! Have the discussion with them because you don't want them repeating your mistakes."

Dempsey also believes that improvement is possible. "Everybody can learn just about anything, especially money and credit. It's like learning a new language. People can claim it's not in their DNA to be good at it, but that's just an excuse."

And don't fear credit, as she did. Today, Dempsey advises everyone to at least get a gas card or a low limit card: "Then you'll have a track record to use when you need it. You need a credit history." Enjoy the sense of accomplishment: "If you're the first one in the family to have a credit card or loan, own that! You're a trail blazer." Just don't charge more than what you can afford to pay off at the end of the month and you'll do great.

Simplified solutions to a complicated problem, yes. However, insist the experts, anyone can alter their financial attitudes and actions. Debt, while easy to get into and tough to emerge from, is not inevitable.

See related: Familial fraud: When family and freinds steal your identity, Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle

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Updated: 01-23-2018