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Ask Allison: My teen is always begging me to buy them stuff. How do I teach them about spending?

Teen girl is has a facial expression of awestruck while viewing a shopping site online and holding a credit card in one of her two hands at her chin.
Stanley tumblers, skin care, concert tickets and more ... teens have the urge to spend, spend, spend. How can parents rein it in? (Getty Images)

The Stanley cup discourse — as in, the currently highly covetable $45 water bottle that people are snatching up — has reached a fever pitch. As the Cut recently reported, tweens and teens have been caught up in the craze, begging their parents to buy them multiple tumblers (one to match every outfit, natch) and even getting bullied for drinking from a knock-off or less popular water bottle. Trendy items — fancy sneakers, Lululemon shorts and so on — achieving social currency among young people is nothing new, but what's the best way for parents to respond? Should a parent bow to pressure and buy their kid a status item (assuming they can afford to) if it means helping them fit in or avoid being teased? Or is there a lesson to be taught about resisting the pack and the pressure to obsess over material things? And if your teen has their own money and wants to spend it all on candy-colored Stanley tumblers (or designer shoes, or a big skin care haul), should parents intervene?”

What Allison says: As the mother of a 17-year-old in the thick of all these trends, I feel like we are in a constant push-pull about spending. My husband and I have tried to establish healthy habits for our kids that will ideally last a lifetime, but it can be a battle for sure, whether it’s over a Stanley tumbler or the newest Uggs or the latest craze this past holiday season: AirPods Max, to which we said a firm no. Actually, I said: Girl, have you lost your mind?

I think a lot of us try to find a happy medium between meeting our kids where they are, in terms of these hot-ticket items being social currency, and trying to teach them that money is not an unlimited resource. So for savvier guidance (because “have you lost your mind?” works only so many times), I reached out to financial expert and mother of two Farnoosh Torabi, author of A Healthy State of Panic. “As parents we don’t like to see our kids suffer through rejection. But giving in and buying them whatever they want has potential long-term consequences,” she says. “It can lead to entitlement issues, compulsive spending habits and measuring their self-worth and self-acceptance with material possessions. Given the values you want to raise your kids with, create some boundaries and practice balance when it comes to addressing their wants.”

Which is to say that while a parent's impulse may be an immediate no (or for some, an immediate yes), you may be able to strike a middle ground. “Try to propose a way for your child to ‘earn it’ if they're old enough to work,” Torabi suggests. “For younger ones, suggest they ‘make a plan.’ That plan may involve waiting to buy the item together when there's a special occasion like a birthday or an improved report card, or providing an allowance tied to certain household responsibilities that can help them afford what they’re after.” Not only will this alleviate the strain to your own pocketbook, but she notes that “you're curbing their impulse to spend, delaying gratification and sending the message that ‘wanting’ for something isn't wrong, but it shouldn't be acted upon impulsively. It's better to make a plan and work toward it. It leads to more appreciation for what you have. And with their own money in hand, it enforces budgeting and being more thoughtful about purchases.”

When I was really trying to teach my own kids how to budget, I got them both Greenlight cards, debit cards on which I could load their weekly allowance, and we could all see where they were spending and how. (It has an easy-to-use app.) Torabi supports this idea and also likes the GoHenry card if you want another option. If my kids opted to blow their weekly allocation on, say, something that was frivolous and fleeting, well, too bad; I wasn’t going to give them more money. If they chose to save their weekly allowance and wanted to splurge on an item that I didn’t want to pay for, they had that choice too. It wasn’t a seamless process, and there were arguments now and then when they told me their allowances weren’t enough and “they were the only kids who had to do this" (LOL), but ultimately, it was a good lesson in money management, which is really what I was looking for.

I also think they found it helpful to see a list of their purchases. Were they blowing money on overpriced ice cream that they really could have skipped? Did my daughter really need another T-shirt from Brandy Melville? So many of our kids use Apple Pay now and never see a receipt. The debit card apps allow you to sit down and review purchases, which is another opportunity for financial education.

And one note about how I handled my kids’ allowances: Many experts suggest that you do not tie allowance to chores or tasks around the house. For us, however, this was the most effective way of teaching that work (which they may not have wanted to do) equals earnings. My kids knew that if their rooms weren’t picked up when I asked them to be, for example, I’d dock their allowance. And, yes, there is absolutely an argument against this — namely, that they should pick up their rooms all on their own! But as with all things teen, I think you have to know your own kid and also know what will work best for you and your family. For us, this system was effective, so we stuck with it.

A photo-illustration head shot of author and mom of teens Allison Winn Scotch.
Author and mom of teens Allison Winn Scotch. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kat Tuohy)

Additionally, Torabi proposes that if you are in a financial position to be flexible, there is indeed opportunity to meet them in the middle. For example, my kids know that I will pay for “experiences.” As a creative type, I personally think there is something valuable in seeing live music, attending shows, traveling, even going to the movies — and I don’t want them to miss out on that. But for more frivolous, material items, they may be on their own, depending on the ask. This is why my daughter recently applied for jobs, and my son, at college, has one as well. I was glad to hear that Torabi supports all of this.

“I think practicing some balance is important," she says. "So maybe it's that you buy them a Stanley [tumbler] when there's an occasion for it, or a gift card to Sephora on their birthdays and holidays. If they want more, they need to earn it themselves. It won't be easy, and there will be conflict, but let's remember that when we give in to every one of our kid's spending wishes, we may be helping them gain some short-term social currency. but long-term, we're setting them up for potential financial hardship or associating their self-worth with material possessions.”

And what if your kid, who is autonomous enough to get a job, blows his paycheck or even his allowance, and then cries that he is broke and wants you to open up your wallet? “While your kids are living at home, you can insist that they automatically save 10% or 20% of every paycheck in a savings account before spending,” Torabi says. (You can also do this via the debit card apps.) “This enforces some savings before the paycheck is completely handed over to Sephora. Another thought is to stop providing certain basics for your teen, now that they're working. So, they have to pay for their own gas and snacks when out with friends. That again forces them to budget. And if they run out of gas money, you can't step in and save them. Let them fail — it's a beautiful way to learn.”

About Ask Allison: Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels. Her 10th book, Take Two, Birdie Maxwell, will be released on March 5. She lives in Los Angeles with her family — including two teens. Need more help demystifying the experience of parenting your own teens? Email Allison at heylifeeditors@yahooinc.com with your question, and it may inspire a future column.