No one wants to find themselves buried under a bunch of credit card debt, but some of us are more prone to rack up debt than others, and it may be because of where we grew up.
New research on credit card debt among college students indicates a person’s hometown has a greater impact on that person’s level of debt than his or her family or financial education. Researchers at the University of Kansas concluded this after surveying 2,000 students at a university in the southwestern U.S. at four points in their young financial lives: the first year of college, the following spring, their fourth year of college and five years after the first survey, when they had just started their careers. Researchers collected data on the young people’s race, GPA, parents’ income, financial health, financial behaviors and hometown ZIP code, in addition to whether they had credit cards and, if so, how much debt they had.
Though family attitudes toward money and how parents interact with children on the topic significantly influence a child’s financial behavior, the researchers found a stronger tie between community and individual financial behaviors. Overall, college students from all over had a tendency to build up credit card debt, but the average credit card debt of students’ hometowns inversely correlated with those students’ credit card balances, as if students saw the high levels of credit card debt around them growing up and developed an aversion to it.
The availability of financial services in a student’s hometown also played a large role in how much debt they had. If a student grew up in a place with several bank branches, she tended to have much lower credit card balances than a student who came from a place with little access to financial services.
Terri Friedline, one of the study’s authors, noted that policymakers usually focus on individual education or family dynamics when looking to address improving financial behaviors, but the research suggests focusing on community infrastructure may be as, if not more, important in solving these problems.