Why Birth Order Doesn't Influence Financial Behavior

Many people believe birth order is responsible for their status in life.

I happen to be a first-born child, which is why I love to remind my younger sister that scientific studies suggest first-born kids are smarter than their siblings.

Proponents of this train of thought usually note that the overwhelming majority of Nobel Laureates happen to be first-born children, as were 21 of the first 23 American astronauts sent into space. (Never mind that it would have been a perfect 23 for 23 if the parents of the other two astronauts had decided to have more than one child.)

Others assert that first-born kids are more apt to be leaders; for instance, surveys show that they’re more likely than their younger siblings to become CEOs. And the majority of US presidents have been first-born children too.

So are first-born kids, on average, really smarter? It’s possible.

Do they tend to make better leaders? Maybe.

Less convincing to me, however, are the psychiatrists who want us to believe that birth order also plays an important role in how we handle our personal finances. According to these behavioral scientists:

  • First-born children are more likely to keep their finances in order and have higher credit scores.
  • Middle children are more likely to hide or ignore financial problems.
  • Last-borns are prone to instant gratification and have trouble saving.
  • “Only children” are more susceptible to living beyond their means.

I know. I don’t buy it either, folks.

If you ask me, these claims are no more credible than the dubious assertions found in a typical financial horoscope. Sorry, Charlie.

Trying to correlate one’s financial behavior to their birth order is preposterous on its face; a financial old-wives tale.

A recent survey by CouponCabin.com backs me up on this: birth order doesn’t matter one whit.

In fact, although the press release stated otherwise, their survey shows that there is very little statistical difference between first-born, middle-born, last-born, and only children when it comes to financial behavior with respect to saving money, investment strategy, and overall financial responsibility.

First born kids don’t have a monopoly on high credit scores, nor are they immune from financial difficulties.

Looking at my two kids, they certainly aren’t following the script. My 14-year-old son, Matthew, is a terrible saver and has no interest in managing his money. On the other hand, my 12-year-old daughter, Nina, not only knows how to save and manage her money, she is a real entrepreneur with a savvy business sense.

Let’s face it: Most people in debt up to their eyeballs are in that situation because they lack self-control — not because of their position on the family tree.

Likewise, the majority of folks who successfully manage their money — regardless of their income — do so because they believe in personal responsibility and have good personal finance habits. For example, most all of them:

  • Understand the difference between a want and a need.
  • Dutifully track all of their expenses.
  • Know the difference between good debt and bad debt.
  • Always spend less than they earn.

And that’s why birth order has no more effect on our financial behavior than the name our parents gave us when we first entered the world does.

We can’t choose our birth order. However, in most cases we can control our financial fate — regardless of where we fall in the family pecking order. We just have to be willing to make the right decisions along the way.

Photo Credit: vtdainfo

36 comments to Why Birth Order Doesn’t Influence Financial Behavior

  • Allyn

    I disagree, Len. Birth order has an influence over people, but it certainly isn’t written in stone. I think folks reading articles on these studies are taking the findings as absolutes — that *all* first borns are finanacially responsible and *all* middle kids are ignoring financial responsibilties, etc. They aren’t absolutes, they’re tendencies. A first born has a *tendency* to be more responsible. In the study I read, 53% of the first borns had a higher credit score than their siblings. That isn’t an absolute. It’s just a tendency in that direction. In my family’s case, we fit perfectly into these slots, but that’s certainly no excuse to stay in bad financial habits.

    • Len Penzo

      I think the main problem with the studies I’ve seen is that they are not very scientific. In fact, they tend to be pretty sloppy. For example, they fail to account for common causes that may be independent of the primary trait being considered (in this case, birth order).

      So it negates the entire premise.

  • Now you are addressing a subject that can go into many directions. One direction would be that Len is presenting an argument of “free will” and Allyn is countering that argument with an argument of “determinism”.

    Science by its very nature is a discipline of “determinism” thus must deny “free will” as a cause.

    • Len Penzo

      Well, I guess I am arguing free will. Although I do believe free will can be biased to some degree based upon other factors (but birth order is certainly not one of them).

  • PK

    Birth order is sort of like Astrology – a true believer will ignore a whole bunch of writing to label this comment “exactly something a first born would say”.

    Whatever. The best way to argue about it is to, in jest, bring up all the supposed benefits of your position to your siblings. They don’t let me get away with it.

    • Len Penzo

      Well said, Paul.

      Hey, did you like how I wasn’t so quick to dismiss birth order as being an indicator of greater intelligence?

      You can bet if I wasn’t a first-born child I would have dismissed that notion out of hand too! ;-)

  • I don’t buy any of this.

    Are the experts suggesting that it’s already written? Not in a million years, I would ever believe it.

  • Lola

    Being the 2nd of 5 would put me in the middle slot, and I’ve never hidden or ignored any financial difficulties. I used to think my older sister had it together financially, but since she had to sell her house to avoid filing for bankruptcy, I now know that she was living pretty far above her means. My best friend and her husband are both only children, and they are THE most financially responsible people I know. The only person in my life that might fit into one of the slots above is my youngest sister; she definitely has trouble saving. But I blame that more on her having a low income and 4 children than the fact that she was born last. ;)

    • Len Penzo

      I have lots of anecdotal evidence too that goes against the birth order theory, Lola.

      By the way, that “middle child” category always seemed dicey to me — especially where there are lots of siblings. If you are, say, the second oldest of 12 children, that is practically the same as being a first-born child in my book. Am I wrong?

      • Lola

        Lol… You have a point, Len! Also, my older sister is my half sister, whereas the three younger sisters are full-blood sisters… So technically, I may be the oldest. In which case, maybe the study has merit after all! :D

  • There are always exceptions to generalities. There are differences between children and I don’t feel it has anything to do with birth order.

  • I don’t pay any attention to birth order. My attitude towards money is largely influenced by genetics and my life experiences. Like you said, I have no control over when I was born (or whether to be born at all even), so I don’t wanna waste a second concerning myself with things I can’t control.

  • I don’t think birth order has anything to do with it – I think it’s all about how you are raised and life experiences. I’m the youngest and I’d say I’m much better at keeping track of finances than my older sister.

  • Melania

    My oldest daughter is a natural leader with an IQ of 120. My youngest daughter is a free spirit with an IQ of 132. Go figure.

  • Oscar

    “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”

    - Obi Wan Kenobi

  • I think we should ask the Magic 8 Ball if birth order counts….

  • Everyone is looking for an excuse, or the answer. Either way, the thing that I think is really important are your genetics and second your tenacity. BTW, being a 1st born (like myself :) ) doesn’t hurt.

  • I think, for the most part, no one is locked into a destiny by birth order. However, I think that there is some truth to the birth order thing.

    Think of a family with two children. Child number one will probably get both parent’s undivided attention for three years, where child two is always going to be sharing that attention. If first borns tend to “turn out better” on average, I think there is definitely a good explanation.

    • Len Penzo

      Well, Wayne, I will agree that first-born babies tend to get better treatment than their younger sibs. For example, with the first baby, most parents will sterilize any pacifier or baby toy that falls on the floor. Then, for the second kid, they usually just rinse it off. And by the time the third child rolls around, they just pick the darn thing up, blow off any visible specs and then pop it back in Junior’s mouth!

      Come on, folks, you know it’s true!

  • Well that’s a laugh. Our family turns this on its head. My older sister (first born) is the least financially responsible. If anything, she behaves as if she were an “only child” or “last-born”. She’s certainly not stupid — she’s a member of Mensa — but given that her motivation for joining Mensa was pure snob appeal, that gave me plenty of motive to stay away.

    Both myself (middle) and younger sister (last born) have always been good with money, and I’d say out of all of us, my younger sister tends to be the best organized and has always been a high achiever.

    Which goes to show behavior is not exactly a hard science. If Astrology can be said to have lead to Astronomy, and Alchemy to Chemistry, then I’m inclined to think our understanding of behavior is still struggling at a semi-Alchemy level. A full understanding of human behavior might be possible, but a much better understanding of how the brain functions may turn out to be a prerequisite.

    • Len Penzo

      My MENSA joke for the day:

      Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. The first one says, “I’ve lost my electron.”

      The other says, “Are you sure?”

      The first replies, “Yes, I’m positive!”

      (Okay, moving on …)

  • wombat

    The astronauts example is a furphy. I’m old enough to remember that NASA only chose first borns or only children.

    • Len Penzo

      First off, Wombat, thanks for teaching me a new word! I had no idea what a furphy was!

      I’m curious, though; why would NASA purposely exclude candidates other than first-borns or only children? That doesn’t make sense to me.

      I did find on NASA’s own website verification that the “eldest son” phenomenon extended to the Apollo program as well. Of the 29 Apollo astronauts:

      22 were first-born (6 of those were only children)
      5 were not the oldest, but were first-born sons
      2 had older brothers

      Interesting huh?

      Here is the link:

      http://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-8-5.html

  • Kelly

    Birth order related to one’s financial behavior? Hogwash!

    I’m the youngest child in my family and I am the only responsible one of the whole bunch. My older brother has had a house repossessed after a couple of cash-out refis where he used the money to go on vacations and buy expensive cars. My sister can’t save a penny to save her life.

    You’re right. It’s all about the choices we make.

  • Paul N

    I’m with Kelly.

    Youngest and most responsible. My older (supposedly smarter brother – trade : Insurance Actuary) is now living in his car. This aft years of + $100K salaries but finding ways to spend $130 K at the same time. My Mother (Accountant) burns through her retirement savings like it was her hobby.

    Me otherwise always known as “the bad one” who made the least $ value yearly salary. No debts, house/cars paid/ good nest egg.

    I have a lot of trouble feeling sorry for any person related or not who at any time of their life had a good income – but like i’m finding often in life – has no concept of money and saves nothing for the future.
    Studies are for the most part are biased with manipulated data.

  • Guillermo Vargas Pizarro

    I think that the birth order has not anything to do with it. I think that people develop different attitudes according to life experiences. In my case I am the middle one, trust me I have more success than my brothers.

  • I tend to agree with the studies that show that birth order can have an effect on intelligence and possibly leadership qualities. Especially if children are born closely together i.e. within a year or two.

    Studies have shown that it takes some time for a mother’s body to recover fully from a birth of a child and the time it takes to nurse, etc. Thus depleting the body of needed resources during pregnancy.

    If a second child is born within a close timeframe so that a mother doesn’t fully “recover” from the last child (physically) then the second born has fewer resources to draw on for development.

    For example I was born a year and half after my older brother. I am a good 8 inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter. I’ve alway considered him a more gifted leader and naturally intelligent (ie. doesn’t have to work as hard as I do….)

    But correlating that with financial habits is a bit of a stretch.

    For what it’s worth thats my two pennies.

  • wombat

    Len,

    My understanding of why NASA had a policy of choosing first borns and only children for space expeditions was they believed that first borns and only children would be more self-reliant and better able to cope with the pressures and uncertainties encountered with space travel.

    But then, what would I know? Maybe it was just chance as you suggest.

  • I’m not necessarily sure how birth order plays into certain tendencies, but you point out that their financial standing is more a result of their self-control and personal responsibility, which could be a result of birth order itself.

    You also mention that it matters just as little as a person’s namesake when entering this world. Some studies have suggested otherwise.

  • Hmm. On one hand, I see how birth order can have some impact on your upbringing. First-borns are put into leadership positions (over their siblings) at a young and impressionable age.

    But on the other hand, LOTS of events have an impact on a child’s upbringing: neighborhood, school, friends, traumatic events, happy events, culture, etc. Birth order is only one of many formative events.

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