Wes: About three years ago we warned that as the economy began to sag, teenagers who grew up in an era of prosperity would face many new challenges. That turns out to have been an understatement. Families have lost employment and disposable income and teens have found their own wages low and jobs scarce. Jobs that do exist are often going to unemployed adults. Teenagers that grew up never knowing financial hardship are now facing it at every socio-economic level.
What hasn’t changed over the last few years is my advice on how to handle money in the home. Simply put, kids do best in the long run when they are raised to believe that nobody gets anything for free. Obviously it’s nice to give gifts, especially this time of year, but our society has moved over the last 30 years from conspicuous consumption for children and adolescents, to ridiculous opulence. This produces a generation of young adults who were given too much. Now, when they go off to college or into the recession work force they are unprepared for the realities of financial life. Instead of learning to do without, they tend toward overspending on a limited income, misuse of credit, and usually a family bailout that turns out far less successful than the national one has been.
If kids begin earning income, even as early as kindergarten, they naturally assume that work leads to profit and that profit can be spent on desired goods. If they are instead given all they desire without any effort, they learn a patently false lesson about economics. Moreover, families often enter my office complaining that kids don’t want to do chores. Big surprise there, huh? At the same time those families admit that they spend thousands of dollars a year on activities, services and goods for their children, most of which are actually “wants” and not “needs.”
In good economic times and bad, parents are better off paying their kids a salary for whatever they want done. Then let the children and teens use that revenue to attain all the goodies.
Some still argue that kids should participate in family chores as a matter of loyalty, and not have to be “bribed.” I say, “good luck with that.” None of us go to work for free, and kids usually won’t either. But neither should they expect a lot of free stuff to show up outside of birthdays and Christmas. Finally, I strongly recommend against giving large gifts for big achievements — say a new computer for a 4.0 GPA. Better to pay a weekly stipend for those grades and let the money sit until the computer is purchased. And never make a reward purchase up front then let the kids pay you back. It won’t happen.
Ben: What do we deserve, really? We don’t like to admit to being selfish. In fact, most people are adamantly against selfishness — in other people. We shake our heads at the greedy CEOs who have so much and still want more, yet we complain about a recession when 300 million Americans (less than 6 percent of the world’s population) contain half the Earth’s wealth in a world where 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.
I feel vastly unqualified in writing this column because I am a jobless teenager. But in researching it, I found globalrichlist.com, which allows you to type in your salary and find your approximate rank of wealth in the world. If you make just $2,000 a year, you’ll find that you’re richer than 75 percent of the rest of the world. I don’t mean to send anyone on a guilt trip or ignore the very real issue of poverty in America, but I don’t dare to touch the issue of money without first addressing the reality that comes with it.
It is in that context that we should approach money. Should we feel guilty about earning a good salary or hourly wage or getting money for doing chores? No. What we do with that money is between our conscience and us, but let’s make sure it’s money we’ve earned before we start assuming we deserve it. What makes us any more deserving than the 3 billion who live on pocket change? Where we were born? At the very least, let’s work for our money.