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When your teen's a big spender - of your cash

A parent wrote to me recently with a problem. Her 16-year-old son is a big spender, and his parents have been footing the bill. Now, they want him to get a job to pay for some of his expenses. His friends, however, seem to have wealthy parents who don't make such demands. He regularly brings this up, makes comparisons and gives them grief.

"We want him to learn the value of money, not just throw it at him," she wrote.

Nurturing fiscal responsibility isn't an easy task. Most teens aren't on the same page as us.

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They think, "What's the big deal? When I finish school, I know I'll have to worry about money. But that's the good thing about being a kid, I don't have to worry about it. That's my parents' job. Yeah, I know I'm probably spoiled. My parents think I'm selfish. But they don't understand what it's like being me. Good clothes, a not-crappy cellphone, going out to eat - I need that if I'm going have any friends. It may not seem like a necessity to them, but it is to me."

How do you get through? Families vary greatly, not just in how much money they have but in what they believe is appropriate and are willing to put out for their kids.

Some kids are responsible about money; some even worry about it. But many do not. This difference usually originates not so much from the parents, as from a child's own personality.

The exact nature of the money arrangement you make with your teen is not what's most important. What really matters is that there's a line, and wherever it is, you hold to it. The vast majority of teens are not terribly interested in being financially prudent. They want to get the most possible money and do the least possible work. This is not bad or good, it is just what they want.

The bottom line is there are two things they could learn from you. Either: "Once my parents set a line about money, arguing usually doesn't get me anywhere." Or: "My parents set limits about money, but I can almost always argue them into changing their mind."

It's what you do, not what you say, that teaches the lesson. If you seriously want to discuss finances with your kid, that's fine: even if it's disclosing how much the family income is, what your expenses are and how much different jobs pay. They'll be interested. They will learn something about the economics of family spending. They will gain in sophistication about money.

But don't count on these discussions to change their spending habits. "Thanks, Mom and Dad, now that you've explained it to me I plan to curb my spending. Obviously, I'm going to have to get a job right away to contribute my share. I see your point. It doesn't make good financial sense for me to get a new cellphone like my friends have rather than my loser phone." It doesn't work that way.

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How will they learn the value of money? Most parents want their kids to understand the direct connection between work and lifestyle, which may mean spending considerable time doing tasks they don't feel like doing.

In truth, there is only one way teenagers ultimately learn, and it doesn't usually happen during their teenage years. The reality hits once they are out in the world, providing their own financial support. "Gosh, food sure does cost a lot."

But for what money you give your teen day to day, it's best for you to call the shots. "We've decided that you're going to have to pay for gas money as well if you want that new cellphone."

And stick with those decisions. "No, I'm sorry. This is the deal."

You'll likely get an argument. A lot of arguments. Including the inevitable: "But all of my friends' parents…"

"Well, that's nice for them. But we're the parents you have. And this is our deal."

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"But it's a crazy deal."

"I'm sorry, it's the one you're stuck with."

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.

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