Q: Our 13-year-old worked odd jobs around the neighborhood this summer and saved $700 — more than we ever could have expected. Now he wants to use all his money to buy a new, expensive phone. His works fine, but of course he has friends who have this phone, and he certainly doesn't seem to understand why we don't think a 13-year-old should have it. He's in tears over the idea that we want him to put some in savings, maybe invest some. He just keeps wanting new shiny things, and already has trouble getting himself off screens and focused on school work. As I type this, I think I know what we need to do (no expensive phone at this time and explain why). But I'm having a hard time. It is his money, as he argues. But I also want him to understand that he doesn't need to have the most expensive thing all the time. How does a parent navigate this?

A: This is a tough one. We all want to raise our children to appreciate what they have, as well as “not chase the new, shiny toy.” We want our children to know that “good enough is good enough” and that, when it comes to money, putting it in the bank is often a better choice than spending it (especially on something they already own).

But.

We also want to raise our children with a sense of ownership and power over their hard work and earnings. So, a story. Earlier this year in the “before” times (pre-covid-19), my eldest teen was hungry and home alone. She used her own hard-earned babysitting money to Uber Eats (that is a verb) herself a pancake breakfast. Yup, you read that right. We had everything you needed to make the meal she ordered. But she decided she needed to order it, and so it arrived, 45 minutes later, cold and decidedly not-tasty. I arrived home to find her miserable, and when I asked what was wrong, she recounted the pancake story. “But Mom, the bad part is that it came to $40. FORTY DOLLARS!” she shouted. The subpar food, how long it took to get it, and the money she spent added up to a lesson I could have never taught her. She truly learned the value of a dollar in that moment, and although I still disagree with many of her purchases, she has never again made such an egregious error in judgment when it comes to her money.

You may think that a disappointing pancake meal and a new phone are two totally different metrics, but the idea around money and power is the same. How is your son supposed to be expected to work hard for his money but then have zero agency over it? That is so discouraging, it almost hurts me to type it. Your feelings about the phone are absolutely valid and are worth discussing with him, but to make a blanket statement that he cannot purchase this phone seems shortsighted and reactionary — even if it is a waste of money.

A more constructive and encouraging way to handle this is to have a meeting with your teen that truly comes to a compromise (which means both party lose something that they want). This meeting should be founded on mutual respect, an eye toward the future, a nod to the past and a way to move forward right then. If this is our framework, then we have respect for his hard work and opinions, as well as your wisdom and authority. We will discuss the aspects of the new phone that attract your son to it, and you can create a more objective pros-and-cons list around the replacement. If you look at past behavior, you can see where your son has showed responsibility as well as hasty decision-making, and you may make the case that you feel he isn’t ready for this device. If we look to the future, you may make a plan for purchasing this phone when certain benchmarks are met (he does his chores/homework/goes to bed, etc.) or you set a date when you reconsider it.

The important thing is that you hold a meeting, maybe come to a decision, and then sleep on it. Ask everyone to give it some space and grace, and then revisit it tomorrow. You are modeling how big financial decisions require some consideration and time.

As the parents, do you know that this purchase is about your son belonging to his peer group? Yes. Do you know how powerful consumerism is in teens’ lives? Yes. Do you know that it is going to be one more thing to police? Yes. But you have to keep the doors of communication open with your son. See yourself as guiding him through these decisions rather than snatching them away due to your own fears and judgments. Good luck.

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