When Should Teens Start Paying for School-Related Expenses?

Teens in domestic kitchen.
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Families who make it a habit to have conversations about money with their children help create a sturdy foundation for financial literacy. As children become teenagers, however, getting them up to speed with finances and decision-making can be difficult.

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Parents may request their teens start paying for school-specific expenses, such as purchasing equipment for sports they participate in or paying for school lunches. They must understand the best approach for how to communicate this need with their children.

GOBankingRates spoke with Beth Zemble, VP of education at GoHenry, to learn more about the best practices for having this conversation with teens.

Learning the Difference Between Wants and Needs

Whether it’s for work or college, 18 is not the age to suddenly start learning money management skills. There is, Zemble said, no “magic age” where children are mature enough to start learning about money. It’s important to take this into consideration as children grow into new phases of responsibility. 

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The better approach is not to mandate an exact age at which parents expect teens to start contributing to school expenses. Zemble said it’s beneficial to begin discussing the difference between wants and needs as early as elementary school and let family values determine who pays for things on either side of the want/need spectrum. 

“Consider gradually increasing a child’s contribution on a sliding scale,” Zemble said, “so their independence and ability to prioritize spending is growing in degrees.” 

Teens old enough to earn money, even through avenues such as allowances or gifts, are old enough to learn how to spend it wisely. Zemble said it’s up to each family to distinguish which “wants” should be self-funded versus the ones parents will continue to fund.

Conversations about the difference between wants and needs should happen well before children reach their teen years. 

“I recommend engaging in the wants-versus-needs discussion as soon as your child makes requests, particularly for impulse buys,” Zemble said. “Discussions of costs can occur when your kids express any interest in learning more about family finances, from how much their favorite treat costs at the grocery store to why you can’t eat out at a restaurant every single night.

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“Ask them how much they think something costs. This allows you to gain insight into their understanding of the relative costs of items.”

Be Transparent

It isn’t easy for parents to ask teens to start paying for their own school-related expenses. This can be an especially difficult request with younger children or for families experiencing lean financial times. 

The key to a successful conversation is transparency. 

“It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from things which seem complicated or might make them feel insecure,” Zemble said, “but explaining the realities of money management to teens in ways they can understand, and allowing them to practice in real life, will set them up for a much more financially stable future.”

Encourage Teens To Practice Good Money Habits

Zemble’s one piece of advice is that parents should give regular allowances or suggest that their teens earn their own money. That can help children learn how to save, spend, give and invest in a responsible manner.

Less important is how much teens receive as allowances.

“Kids having their own money and the autonomy to manage it will solidify the lessons they learn,” Zemble said. “You’d rather them make a $20 mistake at age 13 than a $2,000 mistake at 30!”

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About the Author

Heather Taylor is a senior finance writer for GOBankingRates. She is also the head writer and brand mascot enthusiast for PopIcon, Advertising Week’s blog dedicated to brand mascots. She has been published on HelloGiggles, Business Insider, The Story Exchange, Brit + Co, Thrive Global, and more media outlets. 

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