Timeless Money Lessons From Teens
As a mom, I want to teach my kids everything they need to know about money and life, preferably before they leave my home (the oldest will be going to college in the fall, and time is running out). As a writer for Wise Bread, I see how I fall short compared to many readers who, based on their comments, have parents who taught them to flawlessly distinguish needs from wants or have ingrained the full value of a dollar in their children by requiring hard work inside and outside of the house on a daily basis.
Fortunately, kids and teens can learn from imperfect parents. Plus, they can teach their moms and dads financial lessons the grown-ups had never considered or remind them of timeless financial truths. Here are some things that teens have to say about spending, making, and saving money. (See also: 10 Tips From a Financially Savvy Teen)
Being Fashionable Means Having Your Own Style
High school student Syretha Shirley of Las Vegas tells me that relying on designer labels and name brands to define your style puts you on the path to being a conformist, which is counterproductive to being truly fashionable. In some cases, insecurity can influence people to copy the cookie-cutter style statements offered by leading brands. Don’t count on your shoes (no matter how expensive) to boost your self-image, she says. Have the confidence to express your style through distinct choices.
How to Develop Your Own Style
Define your signature style, set a budget, and shop at discount stores like Marshalls or thrift shops. Pull together disparate items to create your own look. To have fun and build a stylish wardrobe, take shopping trips with a friend and work together to uncover fashionable finds.
If you don’t have the time or taste to develop a distinct stand-out style, adopt a simple, tasteful one or a classic look that’s easy to create and maintain.
Making Money Can Build Your Savings and Your Self-Esteem
Jack James of San Jose, California, a 13-year-old and book author, tells me that he was surprised to find that running his own business boosted his self-esteem, which was damaged by bullying at school. During the two years that he was homeschooled to get back on track academically (Jack has dyslexia) and become stronger in his sense of self, his mom suggested that he start a business. He resisted at first, but her nagging convinced him to consider how he could earn money.
A few years ago, he began bringing in garbage, recycling, and yard waste carts in a business that continues today. Many of his neighbors are his customers, giving him the opportunity to develop friendships while also providing a service. He deposits his earnings in a savings account, which has grown to a healthy $1,000.
The side benefit from the business is the self confidence that Jack gained from generating income. Unlike bullying peers (and the adults who witness but don’t advocate for those who are being bullied), the money doesn’t unfairly judge or condemn but has the capacity to reward effort independent of learning abilities and disabilities.
How to Earn Some Money
Teens can make a side income doing traditional teenage jobs (like babysitting or cutting grass) and helping adults that are willing to pay them for services (like painting or moving stuff).
At any age, finding a way to make money that makes use of your natural talents is ideal not only for earning income but also to prepare you for a career or help you in your present job. My youngest son began selling his old stuff online a few years ago and learned how to present merchandise, respond to inquiries, price goods, and fill orders. He is interested in a career in technology and having some of these experiences gives him firsthand knowledge of user interfaces, financial systems (he has his own PayPal account), and more.
Don't Worry, Just Save
Money problems are a source of worry, stress, and suffering. Syretha has watched as family members overspent on their wants, became unable to take care of their needs, and, in some cases, made mistakes in attempting to get money quickly with life-changing consequences.
How to Avoid Worry Over Money
Realize that you really will need money later, despite how distant those needs seem now. Save to avoid extreme stress and financial crises, which can lead to poor decision making and cause problems that affect long-term career possibilities, personal freedoms, family relationships, and more.
Match your lifestyle to your financial wherewithal, and make sure to set aside money for future needs. Don’t put purchases for day-to-day needs on your credit card. Use your credit card for true emergencies, not fashion wants or other types of non-essentials.
Put Yourself First
Place your values and goals above social opinion instead of trying to please or impress other people. Trying to be popular can often sidetrack your efforts so that you are unable to spend time investing in yourself and achieving your goals.
Investing in herself is a priority for Syretha. Much of her time is spent improving herself, her financial position, and her community. Currently, in addition to high school and side jobs (babysitting and braiding hair), she is being mentored, writing a book of poetry, participating in a teen empowerment group focusing on personal development and community service for young women, and attending a Boys & Girls Club where she took a Money Matters course on financial literacy.
When Boys & Girls Clubs of America partnered with the Charles Schwab Foundation to sponsor the Money Matters Music Mogul contest, both her mentor and mom encouraged her to enter. She wrote an original song that won first place and was made into a music video by hip-hop producer Kevin "Khao" Cates.
Putting yourself first doesn’t mean not caring about others but having the freedom to focus on what is important to you. For example, one of the reasons that Syretha is so happy to win the contest is the opportunity to spread the word about being money smart to other teens.
How to Put Yourself First
Use money and time in ways that are fulfilling in the present and helpful for the future. What specific actions you take may differ from your friends but might include:
- Earning a college degree
- Learning something new or bettering current skills
- Writing a book or authoring a blog
These are all ways to use your talents and money for long-term benefit, rather using money to satisfy immediate and short-lived desires.
Don’t Confuse Stuff and Status With What’s Important
Recently, my oldest son taught me a lesson about money and values. Like many parents, I have always thought that teaching kids to be unmaterialistic is best accomplished by sending them on service projects or mission trips in which they serve impoverished families. The reasoning is that teens will realize how rich they are in comparison to less fortunate others. Then they will be grateful and frugal. For example, my teenage sons have spent at least one week performing home repairs for near-penniless people referred by the Department of Social Services.
But seeing the poor live with little doesn't necessarily translate into feeling rich with less stuff.
My epiphany came during spring break, after my oldest returned from a community-wide, church-sponsored event called the 30-hour famine. He seemed elated, having enjoyed hanging out with friends, meeting new people, and teaming with a few other kids to win the organizer's version of the "Amazing Race." Listening to his experiences made me realize that being happy with less is not the goal of financial wisdom (though this ability is helpful); instead, it's valuing what's really important, like friendships, community camaraderie, and yourself, independent of the stuff you've accumulated and the status that stuff may confer.
How to Know What's Important
Spend time on the activities you enjoy, the things that will make you a better person, and the people you like to be around. Use your priorities to motivate you to do more with fewer resources, not to be stingy but to express your style like Syretha says.