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If Teens Are Earning Money, Do They Get to Decide How to Spend It?

If I close my eyes, I can vividly recall the time when I was in 11th grade and my dad told me that money was a little tight and we were going to have to watch our spending. I probably remember it so well because, until that point, he had never talked to me like that.

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I think I appreciated that he was beginning to think of me as a young adult, someone capable of understanding the value of money, and of making decisions about restraint and financial prudence. Or maybe I remember it because of the look he made later that night when I showed up at home with a brand new fish tank outfitted with a state-of-the-art pump and filter system, multicolored seascape gravel, and an adorable little plastic treasure chest overflowing with teeny tiny rubies and pearls.

I had gone to the pet store with my friend who was picking up some kibble for her family’s puppy. When I came across the aisle of happy little swimming creatures, I knew I had to have a bagful for my desk. They were just so darn cute and I could easily take care of them and still balance my school work and after-school jobs. And naturally those aquatic darlings needed a posh environment in which to flap their fins. When all was said and done, I probably dropped $100 (in 1988!) on the tank and all the trimmings. (Under my maternal watchful eye, the fish didn’t even last a month.)

I Earned My Money

Since I was young, I have prided myself on being responsible and dependable. I held down steady babysitting and part-time waitressing gigs from the time I was 11 years old. So the money I earned was my money. When my father talked to me about “cutting back,” he was talking about spending his money. Or so I told him when he shook his head dejectedly and walked out of my room while I set up my new fish tank.

Money is such a funny thing. Now that I’m a mom of teens, I end up talking about it a lot. As in, the talk is abundant, but the money never seems to be.

My two older children spent the summer working at a camp and doing odd jobs to earn some cash to line their pockets. I’m extremely proud of them and the hard work they have done for the past several months. They were responsible and dependable, and when teenagers earn money, they earned the right to treat themselves to something fun.

Who Pays for What?

My 16-year-old son, a newly licensed driver, is now transporting himself around town in the old family minivan, a vehicle that needed all new brakes and various additional repairs before it was rendered safe for the road. At the same time, my 14-year-old high school freshman daughter needed a new laptop, new supplies, and a whole new wardrobe for the fall.

And you know those kids racked up plenty of other expenses throughout the summer as well. (Don’t even get me started on the grocery bill.) According to my teenagers, though, these things aren’t exactly fun—they’re just a bunch of things they need. (After 12 years of driving a minivan myself, I gotta concur.)

Therefore, Mom and Dad should foot the bill. Of course, my magnanimous children are willing to contribute to the cause. But they’re not interested in underwriting the whole kit and caboodle.

Believe me, I understand where they’re coming from. But I think it’s high time I sit my children down and talk with them about watching our household spending. And if one of them shows up at home with an aquarium, I won’t have any problem returning it to the pet store.  As it turns out, I no longer think desktop decorator fish are all that cute.

Kathleen Osborne is a mom of two teenagers and a soon-to-be teenager. She’s head of communications for Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland, Ohio. And she’s a writer whose work has appeared in The Plain DealerCleveland Magazine, and now Your Teen.

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