“Some debts are fun when you are acquiring them, but none are fun when you set about retiring them.” -Ogden Nash

Most people have heard by now that high levels of conflict between a couple can be destructive not only for their relationship but can cause lasting harm to children caught in the crossfire. As painful as divorce can be for kids, what we know now is that excessive, bitter fighting is what troubles kids–whether the family remains intact or not.

Some new research tackles this same issue from another angle. What is the impact on kids when they grew up in a household where their parents were constantly fighting about money? Although you might think it would make kids more cautious and concerned, (and it probably does this for some kids), unfortunately it appears to make them more likely to accumulate debt in their college years.

The issue of credit card debt among college students has been a growing concern over the last decade. Both administrators and teachers have recently seen more and more students dropping out of school, not because of academic failure, but for financial reasons, including credit card debt.

Adam Hancock and a team from East Carolina University recently published, in Springer’s Journal of Family and Economic Issues, the results of a study of 413 undergraduate students from seven different American universities who took part in the College Student Financial Literacy Survey.

Through an online survey, the authors inquired about a number of issues related to the financial education and climate of the students’ families. They asked not only about credit card debt and number of credit cards owned, but about the students’ level of knowledge about credit cards, loans, and personal finance. They also surveyed their attitudes about debt and about credit cards. They asked questions like, “Are they safe or scary? Are they too costly? Are you comfortable with only making the minimum payment each month?”   

They also examined students’ interactions with their parents when discussing finances as a family. Their work highlights that parents who argue about finances contribute to increasing credit card debt among their children during their student years. Parental influence, and parental arguments about finances specifically, was also one of the top predictors of a student having a credit card debt over $500.

In addition, those students who had two or more credit cards were nearly three times more likely to report having credit card debt over $500. The authors conclude: “It is clear that the influence of parents cannot be underplayed. We need to help students and parents learn financial skills and establish healthy financial attitudes at earlier ages to prevent poor financial habits from taking root.”

So what are the implications of this study for all the parents out there? First, if your kids are still young, keep your arguments about money (and other adult issues) out of the earshot of your children. It is essential that you establish healthy boundaries early on. Schedule times to talk about hot topics when your kids are not around.

Second, give your kids information and education about money starting as early as you can. Trips to the grocery store, comparing prices of various items, and the use of an allowance as a teaching tool are specific ways to engage young children. The old fashioned piggy bank or the opening of a savings account for a young child or teen encourages and teaches young children the importance of saving money.

If your kids are already college age or still financially dependent, start with a debit card or one credit card with a specific budget that is written up or clearly spelled out. If you are providing the money, you are entitled to full access to the information and balance of your student’s account. The only way that you can know what is going on, and whether your son or daughter is spending frivolously, is if you are ultimately the person with the final say so.

Learn to say no to your children, young or old. Too many young people today simply feel entitled to spend money as they please, believing that their parents have to support them financially. No matter how wealthy you are or how much you want your kids to go to college, you should teach them that your support is a privilege. How else are they to learn the importance of discipline, hard work, and living within their means?

Finally, remember that you are a model for your children, like it or not. If you have problems with overspending or living beyond your means, seek out help and education. Your best gift to your kids, and your marriage as well, is to tackle this problem head on. Find a way to get on the same page with your partner. That is something worth fighting for.