Fathers, Daughters and Dollars: How Dads Influence Our Views on Money


dad bad for moneyA few months ago, I wrote a self-consciously goofy article: Why Your Mom Is Bad for Your Money.

The commenters on that story objected to the fact that I spoke with moms only, and I had to agree. So I set out to write the same story about dads, and collected anecdotes in the usual fashion, expecting to get the same amount and types of stories: some funny, some annoying, some sweet.

But this time, it was like pulling teeth: If women had stories about their dads and money, they were often sad, angry, full of longing or a desire for connection. It seems that disagreements over finances can damage a father-daughter relationship as much as it can damage a marriage.

For help unraveling this odd situation, I turned to Dr. Linda Nielsen, professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University and author of “Between Fathers and Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding Your Adult Relationship“ for guidance. Why did the women I interviewed seem to feel so free to praise and condemn their moms, and so shy about their dads?

Why Are Money Issues So Much Harder With Dads?

Nielsen goes to great pains to smooth out old hurts, to encourage daughters of divorce to look at their parents’ marriages and splits with adult eyes and let go of assumptions made during childhood. But she also cites our society’s stereotypes and expectations, even when we’re consciously battling against them, as a huge culprit in damaged father-daughter relationships.

“Let’s start with this sad reality,” Nielsen says. “Many men believe that how much money they earn affects the way women feel about them. Even if you think it’s nonsense, millions of fathers do believe that earning plenty of money is the yardstick used to measure them as husbands and fathers. And when he fails to measure up, he fears losing his family’s admiration or respect.”

RELATED: How My Dad’s Life Insurance Saved Our Family

Citing research study after research study, Nielsen exposes an ugly and disheartening truth about the world we live in: We haven’t come such a long way, baby. College students cite “making money” as a major factor in being a good father. And we even judge their ability to provide once we’re already grown up: Daughters who have received financial help as adults are more likely to care for their aging dads.

“The upshot of these damaging myths is that dads spend more time making money and less time with their children, trying to live up to expectations,” Nielsen says.

Keeping this in mind, I’ll share the stories I found—both the not-so-good, and the great—about girls, their dads and our bottom lines.

The Not-So-Good …

“My dad always spent beyond our means, and was awkwardly over-generous with his money—buying inappropriately large gifts, treating people to dinner for no reason, that sort of thing. As a result I find myself unable to say ‘no’ to school fundraisers, group gifts and invitations to benefits, often to my own extreme financial detriment. It’s not that we’re generous. It’s more of a pride- and shame-driven impulse—but then the line between generosity and self-congratulatory ego is a blurry one, right?”
- Ellen, 40, Los Angeles

“My dad was always so careful and uptight with money that he wouldn’t do even the most affordable versions of what would make him happy. He scrimped and saved all those years and now that he’s retired, he’s ill and can’t take advantage of his comfortable retirement. It’s made me insist that my husband slow down, not worry so much about his career arc, and live with me here, in the now, even if that means we don’t rocket up the social ladder like some of our friends.”
- Audrey, 35, New York

“My parents divorced when I was three, and my dad never paid child support until I applied for financial aid for college and the state went after him for the back-support he owed. No dice: He had no money on the books (drug dealers usually don’t). But he used to show up at odd times throughout my childhood with weird random gifts, like a used electric guitar, or collector’s Beatles albums in translucent wax-paper sleeves, or tickets to see Bob Dylan during his born-again phase. What I learned from this was that total financial chaos is normal, plus the bad habit of half-expecting something to drop out of the sky when I least expect it. Flying by the seat of my pants seems normal. I always make sure the rent’s paid. I just lose sleep doing it.”
- Dawn, 56, Baltimore

RELATED: Why I Chose to Be a Stay-at-Home Dad

“My sweet dad died when I was a teenager without planning for our life without him: He had taken care of everything, and my mom had to pick up and learn everything from the ground up. But the legacy I was left with was a soul-shaking fear that no matter how much I plan for the future, it won’t be enough, leading to total emotional paralysis and, frankly, inaction. It’s not good.”
- Jessica, 32, San Francisco

“As painful as it was, when my parents divorced right before my eldest child’s birth, it was incredibly freeing. Instead of turning to my father for advice on every stinkin’ financial decision, I was forced to make my own choices and find my own voice. It was better for my marriage and better for me. It’d also be better for me if I weren’t still completely pissed at him, but you can’t have everything.”
- Amanda, 45, New Jersey

And the Great

“When it came to retail mistakes, my dad always said, ‘A bought lesson is a learned lesson.’ In other words, don’t beat yourself up over a lousy purchase—just make sure you don’t do it again.”
- Kathy, 58, Dallas

“My dad always told me never to lend more than I can afford to lose. Great advice: I’d rather keep my friends than my money.”
- Ruth, 38, Boston

“Whenever I settle into my comfy chair with a good book, I hear my dad’s refrain: ‘If you’re not making money, you’re spending it!’ That guy really knows how to ruin a day off.”
- Patricia, 42, Brooklyn

“My dad told me to save 10% of every paycheck, off the top, no matter what, and that a good accountant is worth what you pay him.”
- Fiona, 54, San Francisco

And then there’s what my dad always says: “Let your mother handle it.”

  • Tia

    Everyone has a story about their lively hood, and you have done a good job sharing other financial stories! IT gives you food for thought!

  • Kristin

    I grew up, just me and my dad, and I can tell you that I learned lessons from him about money. He wasn’t great with money, bills were late a lot of the time, but for me I had all a girl could want. My dad was always present in my life and to this day is like a best friend. But as he hit a financial crunch and I did too, I had to learn to take care of me first and set some boundaries. I’ve always followed the “Pay bills first, the rest is for me.” method of taking care of my fiances. I didn’t learn good credit habits though. I’m digging myself out of Credit Card debt for the 3rd time, this time, it’s going to stick. God willing.

  • Jeannette de Beauvoir

    My father’s family was wealthy—I grew up in a house with staff, though not of Downton Abbey proportions—but I have to say that my father was very clear about how duty went along with money, and we were far from being spendthrifts. We donated money (and volunteer time) to a lot of organizations and knew that we were fortunate, not somehow “better.”

    On the other hand, I never really learned about budgeting …! Now I’m on my own without that safety net (I’m estranged from the family) and running my own freelance business (www.customline.com) and learning a lot of things my father didn’t teach me … but I think he taught me the most important things: don’t take it for granted, don’t misuse it, and don’t think it says anything about you as a person.

    Not bad lessons, all in all!

  • hawkeye24

    My grandfather once told me something that makes so much sense. He said “It’s not what you make, it’s what you spend.” I think about it when I see myself envious of others’ lifestyles and seeming financial comfortableness.

  • Danielle

    I grew up farming in the midwest and learned the value of a $ very early on from my dad. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat! He always bought insurance and the highest amount we could afford comfortably; which is funny since I’m a benefits consultant now. He also was green before it was popular. Everything was re-used or re-purposed. There was always a spare lawnmower for “parts” out in the shed. he always fixed things himself and was very handy.
    My sister and I both worked since we were 12 (farm work at first, graduating to babysitting and then PT jobs in High School, then weekends at the farm during college.) They helped us both with college, but we paid (still are paying) for most of it ourselves. It made me appreciate it more. The farm work make me want to go to college and make him proud of me.
    When he got sick about 4 years ago, we kept finding insurance policies shoved in boxes around the house. He had coverage to pay for their mortgage while he was sick and other coverages to pay for the day to day stuff while he was disabled. Now I know his frugal lifestyle is what is allowed him to retire this past week at age 65 and to not have to rely entirely on his SS check. He can now enjoy his life, making birdhouses, gardening and “recycling” junk into treasures that he can sell at swap meets. I’m glad he & my mom can live the life thjey want now.

  • Claire

    To add a positive dad story to this article: I grew up in a frugal family. In fact, I grew up thinking we were poor because of the way my dad shopped for groceries by comparing all prices and because of the beat up cars he drove. It turns out, my dad was just being smart and it was a good thing because he lost his job 5 years ago, way before he was ready to retire, but was still able to support the family, including two kids still in college, not to mention having a second home in the UK! That is 5 years running now with no income and he is only 55. He still has no job and he is looking because now, quite frankly, it’s becoming more and more necessary. But I am impressed by how my dad was able to save our family from the economy by his lifetime of frugality and smart money choices.

    • Claire

      I would like to add the second home in the UK was for his prior job, not just for fun.