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Teenagers and Money: How Can He Pay You Back When He Has None?

My son lost his school-appointed computer tablet. Gone. Poof. How? Good question. After searching high and low and finding bupkis, we’ve settled on a more pressing question: Who’s going to pay for it?

I already know the answer: Me. As is apparently often the case with teenagers and money, my 15-year old son is not much of a saver. He does not have the requisite $400 to cover the cost, so my wife and I had to pow-wow to figure out how he was going to make good.

My wife is usually the heavy when it comes to these type of things, but this time she said, Nope, you figure it out, Dad. So, there I was, pressed into active teen discipline duty.

I remember when I was 16, and out of impatience, irresponsibility and a host of other character defects, I did some serious damage to my dad’s car. Without it even leaving the driveway. Well over a thousand bucks in damage. A cost I couldn’t hope to cover. So, my dad put me to work. He didn’t have a cleaning service for his company so I took on that role. Once a week I cleaned his offices, top to bottom, until I’d covered the cost.

This was the template for my son’s restitution.

After receiving the blessing from my wife, I sat my son down and explained the situation.

I told him that he owed me $400, and since he couldn’t pay me in cash he’d have to pay me in another form of currency: Time.

I explained that if he had a real job, he’d be making around $12 an hour. Therefore, he owed me 33 hours. Since I’m a big softie I told him he’d have six months to pay back those 33 hours.

Here were his options: Computer time, study time, manual labor. He could either give up screen time playing video games, tack on additional study hours, or do extra jobs. How he split it up was up to him. I then gave him 24 hours to map out how he wanted to do it. He agreed to the terms, and by the next day went over his action plan with me.

We agreed that he would vacuum the house once a week (30 minutes per session) and this spring he would continue his lawn mowing duties, but without pay.

He would also add an extra hour of study time over the weekends. You’ll notice there’s nothing about giving up screen time in his proposal. So did I. Therefore, I made sure that some form of dialed-back gaming was instituted as well. He grudgingly accepted and as an act of goodwill offered to not play any more video games for the rest of the evening (45 minutes). It was a small token, but hey, a journey of a thousand miles and all that.

When my son was a little kid, we were big fans of the Love and Logic parenting series. One of the best things we got from that series was knowing that when the boy had to do something he wasn’t interested in doing, we would need to give him a couple of choices—both of which still got us what we wanted. He then felt like he had some measure of control. Here it is ten years later, and it’s still proving to be a solid game plan.

Nobody likes to cough up $400 that wasn’t planned, but something actually good came of this experience: My son had to accept responsibility for his actions and give serious consideration as to how to make restitution.

For more on teens earning money:

At least that’s what I’m going to tell myself every time I open my freshly-depleted wallet.

Bryan Johnston is a freelance writer, author of several books, and the Creative Director for a creative agency in Seattle, Washington. He is married, has two teens, and one large goldendoodle. He loves baseball and movies and thinks A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is the most enjoyable book he’s ever read.

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