Liar, Liar: Top Money Lies Americans Are Comfortable With

Businessman putting money in jacket

By Geoff Williams

No, your pants aren't on fire. But judging by the results of a new poll, you might be comfortable lying about certain money issues to get ahead in life – even if the consequences could be grave.

The survey from NerdWallet, conducted by Harris Poll and released this week, sheds some light on how consumers feel about lying when money is at stake.

The online survey tracked the opinions of 2,115 Americans age 18 and older, asking about a variety of scenarios and whether it's OK to lie about them.

Here are the key takeaways. What do you feel crosses the line?

[See: 5 Myths About Your 401(k).]

1. Some Lies Are More Forgivable Than Others. As you might suspect, not all lies are created equal in the eyes of most Americans. Take a look at what participants were – and weren't – OK with.

Entertainment subscription accounts. Do you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, Pandora, Hulu Plus or something along those lines? Or rather, do you have family members or friends who have such a service, and they let you use it? That's OK. Well, not really, but 33 percent of Americans say using someone else's account information for online movies, music or articles to avoid paying subscription costs is acceptable.
The IRS. How about deliberately concealing under-the-table income? Twenty-four percent of Americans said not reporting that dough to the IRS was acceptable.

Eating out. You go to a restaurant, and your kid is 13 or 14 but looks younger. Should you lie about his age to get a discount at a restaurant, theme park or, say, a museum? Twenty-one percent of Americans think that kind of thing is fine, but apparently it's a little worse to lie about your own age (only 17 percent said that was permissible).

Auto insurance. What about fudging the number of miles you drive every year so you can get a lower auto insurance rate? Twenty percent of Americans say that's acceptable.

Credit cards. Lying about your income on a credit card or loan application so a financial institution will lend you more? Only 12 percent feel that's acceptable.

Life insurance. Sixteen percent of people condone lying about smoking marijuana to get lower life insurance rates, whereas only 11 percent of respondents believe it's OK to lie about smoking habits to get lower life insurance rates.

[Read: The Top 10 Lies People Put on Their Resumes.]

2. Men Lie More; Older People Lie Less. True to the stereotype, when it comes to dishonesty and dollars, men can be cads. Meanwhile, graying hair may signal honesty.

At least, when it came to this survey, male participants were likelier to condone lying than women, and older participants were more honest.

When it came to lying on a credit card or loan application, 16 percent of men were willing to lie about the information they provided, compared with only 8 percent of women. Almost twice as many men were also perfectly fine with not reporting under-the-table income to the IRS (30 percent of men versus 18 percent of women). But there was only a 3 percent difference between men and women (35 percent versus 32 percent) when it came to using someone else's account to avoid paying for online, subscription-based movies, music or articles.

As you get older, apparently you get more ethical. Only 11 percent of seniors said it was acceptable to use somebody else's paid account to watch movies or listen to music, whereas 39 percent of Americans ages 18 to 64 voted it acceptable. When it comes to fibbing about your income on a credit card or loan application, only 4 percent of retired Americans said it's OK versus 13 percent of adults who identified themselves as students.

And almost one-third of parents with kids under 18 think it's permissible to lie about their children's ages to get a discount, whereas 18 percent of childless people think that's fine.

[Read: 7 Common Tax Myths, Debunked.]

3. Fear of Consequences Helps People Decide Whether to Lie. Of course, there's no way to know what's going through someone's mind when they answer questions like these. One could argue that it's easier to be ethical about restaurant discounts when you're not the one paying for your kid's meal, and perhaps fewer seniors think it's OK to use somebody else's paid account because they're frequently the ones paying for it.

The respondents weren't asked why they felt that being honest or dishonest was acceptable in certain scenarios, but Amy Danise, an insurance editor at NerdWallet who helped put the survey together, has an educated guess.

"The people don't seem to be factoring in the consequences of the lies, since lying to the IRS is deemed more acceptable than lying about your child's age, and if you were caught in either situation, the consequences would be far worse with the IRS than lying to a restaurant," Danise says. "With a restaurant, if you're caught, 'Who cares?'"

"The lie seems to depend on the perceived likelihood of getting caught," Danise adds.

That may be why men lie about money more. "I think men have less fear of getting caught and may be, in this case, more risk-takers in general than women," Danise adds.

She also suspects that so few people find it acceptable to lie on a life insurance policy because there's a medical exam, and people know they'll probably be caught.

David Hagenbuch, a marketing professor who specializes in ethics, agrees. "My hunch is that most of the survey respondents based their ethical choices on consequences rather than on moral principles," says Hagenbuch, who teaches at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

"More specifically," Hagebuch says, "I'd speculate from the wide-ranging results that people's estimation of consequences was further broken down into factors such as the likelihood of getting caught, financial cost, social stigma and impact on others."

Still, one could argue that Americans aren't a lying bunch. After all, there was only one scenario in which more than 50 percent or more of respondents argued that it's OK to lie when it comes to money: using someone else's subscription entertainment account was fine with 62 percent of students and 59 percent of people ages 18 to 34. Overall, the majority of respondents said it was best to not lie.

But for those who take the jaded viewpoint, the reason we aren't lying more may be because technology has made it harder for us to lie, says Wendy Patrick, a business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University.

"We live in a technologically savvy world where it is increasingly easy to detect dishonesty," she says. "In an age of instant fact-checking, most of my students view the truth in black and white and would not dare to even fudge a date on their resumes."

But she adds, "There are some consumers, however, who continue to view honesty in multiple shades of gray. They might pass one of their children off as under 12 or themselves as a senior in order to get a discount, hoping they do not get carded."

So there's our future. As technology continues to evolve, society will become more honest – whether we like it or not.