What’s A Teen To Do?

A 2014 study of how high school seniors spend their money concluded that “they spend mostly on their own needs while saving for future education or to help out the family rated rather low”. It was also concluded that “this has not changed much over the past three decades”…  Now there’s a shock! … They could have just called us!

On several occasions I have written about my 17-year-old grandson who lives close and who I see often. So I can verify that my grandson fits the study’s findings very well … he does spend exclusively on his own needs and mostly with his parents’ and my money (he has perfected the art of double dipping). I say this not to speak badly of the boy because he is a great, average kid. But in many ways, he lives in a much more difficult financial world than those teens of the past three decades which the study mentioned.

My grandson’s spending falls into these four categories: gas, food, video games and movies. And they are all expensive in today’s world. This morning the price of a gallon of gas at the Shell station down the street was $3.69. To fill his car’s 16 gallon tank would cost $59.04 (over 7 hours of work at minimum wage less withholding). So my unofficial study has determined that his visits to my house are in direct proportion to how close his gas gauge is to empty.

The last time he and I went to the movie at the local multiplex his ticket was $8 plus $9 for popcorn and a soft drink (over 2 hours of work at minimum wage less withholding). Luckily, the dating bug has not hit him yet since a simple movie date could cost him $30 or more. And I was truly shocked when I discovered at Game Stop that the cost of the newest video game he wanted was $50 (6.5 hours of work at minimum wage less withholding).

So what’s a teen to do? Well, he can work his parents (and grandparents) for money and he can simply go to work – which is exactly what my grandson does. He works at the local YMCA in the summer and during the school year when he can which is not often because he also participates in school sports. 

But today’s high school teens not only face high costs for the things they want to buy, they face a very difficult work environment. Walk into any fast-food restaurant and look at the wait staff. Two or three decades ago those jobs would have been filled by teens earning minimum wage for part-time work. Today, there are as many or more adults on the wait staff.

 Part of the cause is that employer’s find today’s teens less prepared for the world of work.

In 1989 an employer hiring an American teen had a better than one-in-two chance that the young person knew what it took to get and hold a job. In 2012, that same employer has a one-in-three chance of hiring a young person who knows what it takes to get and hold a job. So they hire an adult if they can.

And today they can hire adults, because adults need the jobs to support themselves or their families. Jobs that were meant to be part-time work for teens are now full-time work for adults. Thus, there is a growing controversy over raising the minimum wage.

In 1989, 55.9% of American youth participated in the labor force at some time during the year. In 1999 that rate was still 52%. But since 2000 that rate has declined steadily to 33.7% in 2012. Teens who don’t participate in the labor force are less likely to know how to be successful when they do begin full-time work. 

Teens and their parents must also make the trade-off between work and participation in school activities. My grandson plays baseball and swims for his high school which means that work is out for most of the school year because of practice and game schedules which include weekends. I happen to believe that is the right choice for him now, but I also know that one of his best friends cannot participate because he simply has to work. I believe that his friend misses a lot by not having the time to participate in school activities.

Finally, as a class activity, you might want to have your students keep track of their spending for a week or a month. Also poll your students in regard to where their money comes from, if they work, where they work and when they work.


Charles Wilkinson, Publisher