Q. Our two teens have their own money from babysitting, part-time jobs, and birthday gifts. We’re very proud of how hard they work and how responsible they have become. Both our son and daughter have accumulated healthy savings accounts and provide for their own spending money.
However, being somewhat financially independent from us has created an issue. They often want to buy things we don’t approve of, such as certain clothes and video games. They don’t think their decisions should be subject to our approval since they are spending their own money. How much control should we assert over their spending choices when we aren’t providing the funds?
A. Who doesn’t love the feeling when your child asks for permission to go to a movie with his pals but doesn’t ask for money? In addition to offering opportunities to become more responsible and experience some independence, having their own money means your kids won’t need yours. Of course, it’s a false sense of liberation, because . . . well . . . college. But still.
Experts suggest teaching children about money from their earliest years and establishing good habits by dividing all income (money from birthdays, babysitting, allowance, chores, part-time jobs) into four separate “banks” marked give, grow, save, and spend. Money from the give bank is earmarked for church and charities of your child’s choice; the grow fund is like a retirement account (you might even match funds deposited in the same way an employer would); the savings bank is meant for larger purchases or special events, such as a school trip (things that require a bigger chunk of accumulated cash), and spending money is meant for regular purchases and socializing. (Parents can certainly open multiple accounts in an actual financial institution, but you don’t have to, especially at first.)
When it comes to spending their own money, mere ownership of the funds doesn’t entitle a child to total control over his spending decisions. You’re still the parent, regardless of whether your children have their own money, and your role as the parent—the one who knows what is best for your children—trumps any financial freedom they might believe they enjoy. This is true even in the teenage years. So, just because your son has the funds for an Xbox 360, or a pet snake, or a hardly rusty F150 pickup, this does not mean he can make the choice to buy those things. Similarly your daughter should not feel free to purchase clothing you object to, or have extensions or color added to her hair, merely because she can pay for it.
When it comes to money, it’s critical to teach children that the use of financial resources is a value-laden choice. Oddly, this is a lesson many parents don’t model. For example, I know a mom who once complained to me that she loathed everything about the Victoria’s Secret Pink store. She felt the clothing was too sexy and skimpy for her tween and teen girls and the advertising and store displays exploited girls and women. She didn’t like the image the product line projected, and she especially disliked the trademarked “Pink” across the backside of all of the shorts and sweats. “But my two daughters love the stuff, and that’s what they want to wear,” she told me, “so we have closets full of Pink clothing. It just bugs me every time I have to pull out a credit card and buy that stuff.”
I was dumbfounded by this woman’s lack of consistency between her stated values about immodest clothing and the exploitation of women and girls, and her behavior—shelling out money she didn’t want to spend on items she believed were inappropriate for her daughters. How can we teach our children to spend their money in ways that support and demonstrate their values if we’re doing exactly the opposite—especially if we’re buying things for them that we don’t want them to own?
That was rhetorical, obviously, but the answer is: you can’t.
The first guideline about spending, then, is to model the behavior you want your kids to emulate. Make sure your purchases reflect your values, and say no to those that don’t. Whether you are concerned about cost, content, ethical production, modesty, age-appropriateness, or any other factor, be sure to explain to your children why you won’t use your money in a particular way so they make the connection between values and spending.
A second rule about spending is: Parental approval required. You might establish some parameters within which your kids can make some choices, but as a general rule, even when they’re spending their own funds, you should expect them to check with you to be sure their selections are okay with you. This is especially true for media purchases, which can seem appropriate but often may contain objectionable content.
Finally, in our materialistic culture we are challenged to demonstrate to our kids that having more stuff is not the route to happiness or popularity. This is perhaps the most crucial reason to maintain control over spending—to keep children from the habit of buying their way into social circles or deluding themselves into thinking that they will be more content in life if they have the latest version of everything. It’s not an easy lesson to convey, but it’s crucial if our kids are to avoid the empty pursuit of consumerism.