“I live in constant fear of debt”: how our parents influence our attitude to money

A long line of studies have found a direct relationship between our parents’ attitudes toward debt and how we think about borrowing money in the future. Stylist investigates how our childhood finances go on to shape our future.  

In Stylist’s new digital series In the Red, we investigate how debt is really impacting young women in 2022 – from our connection with credit cards and shopping to examining how debt informs our relationships, our beauty regimes and the way we operate in the world. 

One day, when Billie Walker was a teenager, her mum told her some big news: she was putting away money to take her daughter on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday when she turned 18.

The excitement lasted for a few months, which Walker spent daydreaming about where they might go and what they might do. But the next thing she knew, her mum was remortgaging their house and the trip was off the table.

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Walker’s mum has bipolar disorder, a condition which Walker, now 27 and based in London, says led to a “tumultuous household” and a difficult relationship with money. “We would go from extravagant dinners and lunches out to barely scraping by,” she says. “Now I live in constant fear of debt and overspending due to her extreme spending bursts.” 

Walker isn’t alone in having her attitude toward money shaped by her parents. A 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research is just one in a long line to find a direct relationship between parents’ attitudes toward debt and how their children go on to think about and approach borrowing money in adulthood.

It’s a trend that makes sense to Simonne Gnessen, founder of Wise Monkey Financial Coaching and co-author of Sheconomics. “We’re programming ourselves throughout our lives and in particular when we’re very young,” she says. “Past experiences, memories, ancestral history and trauma can all come into that. We’re all building internal beliefs as children that might drive our behaviour later in life, even if we don’t realise it’s happening.”

This was certainly the case for Anna Woroniecka, 29, and living in Northampton, who says her upbringing in an immigrant family instilled her with certain messages about money and debt

“I was born in Poland and because of the economic situation and some bad luck, my dad spent a lot of time working away,” she explains. To make enough money to support the family, Woroniecka’s dad worked in Italy and the US before eventually moving to the UK where his family joined him.

“As a child I was always very aware of money. I refused things being bought for me and I saw a big disparity between me and my friends,” Woroniecka recalls. “When we moved to the UK life was much easier. It was easier to allow yourself material things so there were a lot of impulse buys.” 

A long line of studies have found a direct relationship between parents’ attitudes toward debt and how their children go on to think about and approach borrowing money in adulthood.

“When I started earning money for myself, I was overwhelmed by disposable income,” she continues. “I spent all my earnings on make-up and other stuff, to the point where I’m still struggling to get out of the debt caused by my young adult self.”

As Woroniecka’s story highlights, money is emotionally charged and intimately related to our family histories and relationships, says Gnessen. “Money has different meanings to different people; it’s not just coins and notes and numbers on a spreadsheet,” she explains. “It can mean freedom or security, it can be a way of demonstrating love or status or power. Spending can be used as a way of regulating our emotions.”

Our parents’ relationships to money can manifest for us in different ways. “A bad childhood experience might mean you make decisions as an adult that are all about building financial security or ensuring your own children never go through what you did. But it might also mean that you are very frightened to take on risk or debt, even ‘good debt’ like student loans or mortgages.” 

The first step for people struggling with financial habits and beliefs they’ve inherited from their parents is to become aware of the fact that these messages are often unconscious and have been reinforced throughout our lives, says Gnessen.

“Then the question is: do they help me align my finances with what’s really important to me?” says Gnessen. “If the answer is no, what am I doing to keep the message alive and how can I replace that with an empowering message? Maybe it’s that not all debt is bad, or that money is just a resource with no meaning apart from the one I give to it. It’s about challenging unconscious beliefs and creating and reinforcing new ones.”

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For both Walker and Woroniecka, those inherited messages are complicated. “I actually think my pragmatism with money is one of my great traits,” says Walker. “But when I do have to spend money, I feel incredibly bad for doing it – like I don’t deserve to be spending money on myself. I have to remind myself an occasional extravagance or treat isn’t the same as a lifetime of reckless spending.”

In Woroniecka’s case, it’s not just her who is working through inherited messages around money and debt. “I used to get frustrated with my parents about this,” she says. “But now I realise that my mum, in particular, is trying to work through her own generational financial trauma and was just trying to make up for what she never had, by giving us as much as she could.” 

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Images: Molly Saunders/Getty