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Adolescence and Allowance

Giving adolescents allowance can teach them about managing money

When parents give a teenager a regular allowance, exactly what are they allowing?

The answer is: a measure of choice - the monetary freedom to buy something she desires to have or to do at an age when material possessions and entertainment experiences become more socially pressing. Keeping up with the latest fad or fashion and the spending power of peers is more important the further through adolescence one grows.

In most cases, whatever allowance you provide is going to be insufficient because your teenager, like others of her kind, is financially deprived.

How can this lack be so when you know he or she is well provided for? The answer is that deprivation is a relative one. Your adolescent feels relatively deprived compared to peers who have more and can afford to do more, and compared to new products introduced into the marketplace that make yesterday's purchase seem inferior, out of style, old fashioned, and obsolete.

For both causes, no matter how much allowance you give, it is never going to be enough to quell monetary dissatisfaction the teenager is likely to feel. So give what you can financially and emotionally afford to, and think is reasonable, not how much the teenager would ideally wish to have.

An allowance is a powerfully diagnostic gift, and parents should be attentive to what the child's response to this discretionary money shows. The allowance question parents need to ask themselves is this: "Is my child by temperament and inclination more of a SPENDER or a SAVER?" Psychologically, this distinction can be very telling.

If, because of urgent wants and impetuosity, your child keeps feeling driven to spend the money right away on something, anything of momentary interest, to satisfy the need to buy, there may be larger issues for parental concern. They may see matters of impulse control that need attending to.

If so, their job is to help the child exercise restraint by delaying and denying immediate gratification. So, in the case of an adolescent who acts like a "born spender" as one parent described it, the management of allowance can help this child learn to spend rationally and not emotionally, to prioritize wants, to slow buying decisions down, and to set money aside for achieving future goals. When a spender learns to save, self-discipline is gained.

Young people who are more inclined to save at least some of their allowance tend to have more self-control and are less likely to give way to impulse in their response to more financial freedom and to other freedoms as well. So saving has both a specific and a psychological value.

Come adolescence, it is usually easier to parent a saver than a spender. The first has the foresight to think ahead while the second is ruled by a tyranny of now. And during the last stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 - 23) when pressure from new freedom and temptation for more spending can be extremely high, the self-discipline from being a saver can indeed be a "saving,' stabilizing grace. Managing money responsibly can teach responsible self-management when you are more on your own.

Allowance is rarely freely given because most parents decide to supervise the spending. It may be they feel certain snack foods or soft drinks, certain makeup, certain T-shirt graphics, certain music, certain video games, or certain posters are not what they are willing to subsidize. This is where allowance can create conflict. The teenager protests: "It's my money; I should be able spend it as I choose!"

Corrects the parent: "It is your money; but we intend to have some say about what you buy. If you continue to buy what we disapprove, then we will have to re-evaluate giving allowance."

Complained one teenager in counseling, "My parents are always controlling what I'm allowed to do by threatening to take away what they supposedly have given me!"

Sometimes parents will tie allowance to performance - on accomplishing chores, is a common example. I think this is generally a mistake for two reasons. The first reason is because chores should be an unpaid contribution of labor made to support the household, the kind of contribution parents routinely make. The message is: everybody needs to do their share. The second reason is because when parents say "no chores done results in no allowance given," they make doing chores sound like a free choice, which it is not. There is no getting out of chores. They will be done, and parental supervision (relentless insistence wearing down adolescent resistance) will make them so. Giving up allowance will not get a teenager out of doing chores.

The purpose of giving allowance is to teach money management skills that young people will need all their lives as they transact business with the world. With a child, parents teach lower level money management skills like learning the costs of things, prioritizing wants, saving for something special, and maybe donating some part of this disposable income to charity.

With an adolescent, certainly by high school, parents are in the business of using more allowance to teach higher level money management skills like paying for recurring financial needs, budgeting weekly and monthly expenses, managing a debit account, and living within their means. Allowance is increased at this older age to cover regular costs like public transportation, car gas, cell phone charges, school lunch, toiletries, recreation, and clothing, for example, expenses for which the teenager is now expected to pay. The allowance lesson in late adolescence is: with more financial freedom comes more financial responsibility.

Now the transition from a weekly to a monthly allowance occurs so that part of the adolescent challenge is making money last, the clear understanding being that there are going to be no advances should money run out before the end of the allotted time. This is real life money management training that the teenager will need in place to successfully negotiate the last stage of adolescence, trial independence, as budgeting, banking, and bill paying become essential survival skills when operating out on one's own.

Finally, is there a time to withhold allowance? Yes. If you have cause to believe that your adolescent is abusing alcohol or other drugs, you may not want to enable this risky behavior by underwriting the cost. It's not that loss of allowance will stop the substance abuse, but it will send a message that you do not intend to support it.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley.) Information

Next week's entry: Adolescence and curfew

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