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

Both teens and adults can do lots of things to earn money through money-making hobbies and side jobs, such as playing an instrument or tutoring.

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. 

Watch video

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:

  1. Earning a college degree
  2. Learning something new or bettering current skills
  3. 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.

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Guest's picture

Really good post. I am a huge proponent of the "pay yourself first" principle. I think this is one of the most important things to teach not only teens, but younger children.

I also like the idea of distinguishing between stuff and what is truly important. The aggressive marketing tactics aimed and children and teens tries to counteract this, but as parents, we need to be the light of truth. Materialism and Consumerism seem to be waging war on the innocence and values of our children.

Julie Rains's picture

I really liked Syretha's focus on her values and putting her goals first above what others expect -- similar to the concept of paying yourself first. In many cases, what people expect seems worthy (that is, if the people are loving parents and inspiring teachers); in some cases, outside influences are not positive ones. But even those who mean well can send the wrong messages. So, I agree that it's best to pursue what is meaningful to you. Aligning money values with personal values will serve teens and adults well in the long run.

Guest's picture

I think all too often we fall into the relm of status quo. Its easy to do because the ads make it as such. As far as clothing goes, I'm doing fairly well in the form of not spending a lot to get my original style. I watch clearance racks, and shop numerous stores before buying even one single pair of shorts.

Great post!

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for your comment. Bargain shopping can be time consuming but worth the extra effort. Having your go-to places is especially helpful as Syretha mentions though I could do more myself to develop a personal style (I don't have much of a fashion sense so I appreciated her mention of a "classic" style).

For me, I am thinking that dressing sons is easier than outfitting girls so I have saved comparatively in that area -- they mostly wear t-shirts and shorts, with the occasional collared shirt that are generally easy to find at consignment sales.

Guest's picture

It takes effort, but we can teach our kids how to make good choices and have lasting values. It is not easy with all we are bombarded with these days, but that just means we need to make more effort. Our kids are counting on us.

I take every chance I can get to take advantage of the teaching moments as they arise...negative stuff can be as powerful a teaching moment as the positive ones...it all in the spin... :-)

I think the key is involvement, involvement, involvement.

Julie Rains's picture

You're right to recommend those teaching moments. It's hard to get a lot of financial info across to your kids but if you can find the moments when you know that they are engaged (because they are asking for a new toy or shoes, for example) they will be more likely to listen.

Guest's picture

Any comments on the teaching value of Kyosaki's finance game?

Julie Rains's picture

We've played Life and Monopoly for fun but never Kyosaki's finance game. My kids seem to respond better when the lessons are directly relevant to what they are experiencing right now.

Guest's picture

Saving money, earning money and budgeting seem to be the basic yet most important skills. If young people know how to practice these skills well, the rest should come easy. Great article and good luck to your daughter in college!

Guest's picture

Who knew teens could be so wise! I like the very first tip about buying clothes that you like rather than name brands. This means you could go into almost any low-priced store and find something that you actually like rather than worrying about going to the name brand store and picking out something there because thats where you feel like you "should" be shopping. Discount stores often get whats not sold at the stores at the major mall anyway. Just know the time of the month that they get shipments in, and you'll have first dibs on whatever labels they get at a major discount.