Financially Parenting Strong Willed Teens

Parenting strong willed teens isn't easy.

  • DH = dear husband
  • DD1 = dear first daughter
  • DD2 = dear second daughter
  • DD3 = dear third daughter

I wasn't a “teachable” teen

Sometimes I read parenting articles that offer pointers on teaching teens about financial management – and I find myself shaking my head. I'm not convinced that good financial management can be “taught” in a linear, rational way to teens – at least not all of them.

Take me, for example. Wind the clock back a few decades, and see me as a teen, begging my parents for yet another advance on my monthly allowance. With every hesitation on their part, with every effort to explain to me that I needed to be more careful about how I spent the money, my begging would escalate – to whining, to exasperation, to wounded anger.

Every time I succeeded. I got my advance – which once again I spent too quickly. Rinse repeat.

In managing their own finances, my parents were excellent. One income, 5 kids, used cars purchased with cash, mortgage paid off, generous giving, frugal living, wise investing. It's commonly accepted that we learn by example. But I didn't.

I remember the messages my parents communicated about finances – that money didn't buy happiness;  that materialism was wasteful and shallow; that needs could be met frugally – but for some reason, my compulsion was to rebel against them.

My own strong willed teen

What goes around comes around. Fast forward to middle-age, and I was the parent of the strong willed teen.

DH and I went through a brutal financial reckoning after maxing out for years and then crashing against job loss and a prolonged period of underemployment and seriously reduced income. It all meant a painful learning curve for us, but it also led to our financial wake-up and subsequent turn-around.

When we embraced all of the financial wisdom that I had rejected as a teen and adopted an intentional frugality,  painstakingly changing old habits, we were confronted with the rebellion of our own teen. We have 3 daughters, and while DD1 responded to our tightened belt by developing her own resourcefulness and frugality, and DD3, still quite young, accepted it as the way things were, DD2 raged.

Still a beginner myself – finally grasping the ABCs of personal finance at such late a stage – how was I, so long and so stubbornly resistant, going to “teach” my resistant teen?

Set firm boundaries

My parents, exemplary as they were with money-management, made this big mistake in financially parenting me: They gave in when I whined.

I wonder what would have happened if they hadn't. How would things have gone if they had refused to give me an advance on my allowance? How would I have responded? It's impossible to know, but my guess is that I would have continued to ramp up my adolescent tantrum to an insufferable degree before breaking and accepting their boundaries.

In the case of DD2, the monthly conflict involved her cell phone bill. When we bought her plan, it was with the understanding that she would pay for it with money earned from her part-time job. Month after month, she didn't pay for it. Month after month, we told her that she needed to be more careful with how she spent her money. And month after month, she kicked up a fuss. Sound familiar?

Were we willing to withstand the ramped-up tantrum of DD2? DH was. A tougher parent by nature, he was eager to assert strong boundaries along with me. I was the “softer” parent, the one who had to decide to step up, to choose this as my hill to die on. I did step up – to die on that hill – and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.

Give them the freedom to make mistakes they'll regret

I was recently talking with a friend who was financially smart from the get-go. She's the one who, 6 years ago, gave us Dave Ramsey's CD book The Total Money Makeover – the inspiration for our journey out of debt. We were talking about how to set children up for a future of smart money-management, and it was clear that I believed in giving them more wiggle room than she did.

As we talked about how much power to give teens in managing their money, I said, “It's important to give them enough freedom to make mistakes – mistakes they'll regret.” My friend agreed.

When DD2 couldn't pay her cell phone bill, we started to respond by freezing her account until she paid up. No phone calls, texting, or data. And there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Sheer hell, my friends. But she learned. She learned that making the mistake of not paying her cell phone bill was something that she would regret. She learned to pay it on time.

Several years later, DD2 is now a young adult who is taking on her financial obligations with a responsibility I wish I'd had at her age.

Encourage the vision

I have some regret that our children had to learn about personal finances against the backdrop of our own financial mess. I wish that we had been in a position of financial maturity and strength ourselves as we coached them.

For a long time, it was all about the discipline of negatives – don't empty your savings; avoid wasting money because of peer pressure; stay away from spending as therapy; don't, don't, don't ….” Now, as DH and I approach complete debt-freedom and even financial freedom, we put a greater emphasis on the promise of positives.

Careful spending, diligent saving, frugal living, and generous giving aren't ends in themselves; they combine to form the best foundation for our children's future lives – and not just financially. It can be tough to do the work of asserting boundaries for strong willed teens and to stand by as they make mistakes, letting them face the consequences.

But those boundaries and that room to go astray within them are what give our teens the chance to develop good financial habits and to gain solid financial health – along with all the freedoms and opportunities that come with it. And here's the thing about strong willed children of any age. Once we get it, we hold on.

Were you a strong willed teen when it came to money? Did you have a sibling or a friend who was? Do you know any strong willed teens now? Your comments are welcome.

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