People may not inherit parents’ money DNA, experts say

By Roxanne (Yanchun) Liu
Medill Reports

Lori Schwartz’s father, a 74-year-old doctor, only goes to restaurants for dinner where he can use coupons. Raised in a poor family, her father watches how much he spends all the time despite the good paychecks he now earns, embarrassing his daughter.

“I hate it,” she said. “His cheapness is not attractive. I never want to be like that.”

Several adults interviewed for this story said they are comfortable spending more money on themselves than their thrifty parents do, but they are still influenced by their parents’ money habits. These children cherry-pick their parents’ financial behaviors, adopting those that fit with their current economic situation and their expectations of future financial means, said Jean Marie Dillon, a certified financial planner at Freedom Financial Counseling, LLC.

Schwartz, a 48-year-old mother who used to work in marketing, said she feels comfortable spending her own money but she leans more toward saving than spending, similar to her father but not quite to his extreme. She also adopted her parents’ approach of paying credits cards on time and avoiding debt, Schwartz said.

“I have a young son, and me and my husband want to make sure that we can provide for him,” said Schwartz, who has started a 529 college savings plan for her son. “That kind of changes a lot of things. It’s not just about yourself anymore. It’s about your family.”

Matt Bouvet, a 31-year-old senior video editor living in San Diego, said he likes to save money like his father does, who encouraged his son to read about bond investments and personal finance when he finished college. Instead of risking money on volatile investments like stocks and cryptocurrency, Bouvet puts 6 to 10 percent of his savings into his 401(k) plan.

Bouvet’s father, a businessman who grew up without much money, never took his family on a vacation trip that involved flying, Bouvet said. The family seldom dined out.

Bouvet didn’t completely inherit his father’s frugality. Fond of traveling for holidays and eating more expensive food than his father did, Bouvet is doing freelance jobs for extra money to spend on these hobbies and desires.

“When [my father] was my age, he already owned a house,” Bouvet said. “He already had a kid. I am very, very far away from that financially. It’s a different time.”

Mouk Chounlamany, a 33-year-old information technology developer working in Michigan, said his relationship with money is terrible. Born after a war in his home country of Laos and living in Thailand refugee camps and eating grass and eggs when he was a child, Chounlamany said he now spends quite a bit on food and travel, sometimes as much as $1,000 to $2,000 in less than a week.

“If you’re born poor, you know how being poor is like,” Chounlamany said. “When you start to have money, you don’t really know how to save it. You don’t think about long-term goals like, here I should start saving, because you feel like you never have it to begin with, so why even start saving now?”

His mother, however, is still thrifty, eating simple food such as rice and vegetables, Chounlamany said.

James Dobbs, president at Woodfield Financial Advisors Inc., said many of his clients, several of whom make $200,000 to $700,000 a year and manage their money cautiously, find themselves helping one or more children between the ages of 30 and 50 address financial problems.

“Clients that have substantial wealth, say over $1 million, generally do not share that information with their children,” Dobbs said. “I believe if they told their children how much money they have, the children may start making different decisions about their own financing. It may take away their incentive to work harder. It may make them more dependent or become dependent on their parents.”

Wong Xinzhao, a 25-year-old undergraduate student in Chicago, said he follows the saving habits of his parents because he hasn’t seen a better way to deal with money.

Wong’s parents, whom he said are well-off public figures in China, seldom talk with their son about money management except for a curt tip of “save your money and don’t overspend.”

Although parental money behaviors have significant impact on children, discussing money is usually taboo around the dinner table, Freedom Financial’s Dillon said.

“Lots of clients come to me seeking truth that they never heard from their parents,” she said.

Photo at top: Parents’ financial habits may not pass on to their children. (Pictures of Money/Flickr)