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Why not a $65 T-shirt? Consumers: Our youngsters are eager to wield their buying power -- which often comes with adult dollars. Parents have to know when to step in.


MY SON AND I are locked in negotiations over a $65 T-shirt. It has a cool zipper, nifty pockets, and Andre Agassi wears one just like it on the tennis court. Yet, it is still just a T-shirt.

In my most Solomonesque way, I try to explain that a $65 T-shirt is not only unnecessary, but is also offensive to me.

So are $50 blue jeans, $75 backpacks and $100 sneakers (does anyone still call them that?), all part of the annual back-to-school shopping blitz, which nationally averaged about $400 per child this year.

The constant haggling - as intense as you'll find in any Middle Eastern bazaar - wears me down. "How much are you willing to spend?" "What if you go $40 and I make up the difference?" "You can deduct it from my [pick one] allowance/baby-sitting/birthday money." "Can I take it out of the bank?"

Then, he trumps me with, "But it's my money."

He's right. At least some of it is his money, which he earned mowing lawns and doing odd jobs. And if you consult the parenting manual, conventional wisdom says that as long as it isn't illegal or immoral, youngsters should be able to spend their money as they please. Allowing them to make their own decisions is a basic life skill and essential preparation for adulthood.

"You should feel proud," said one psychologist, hearing my dilemma. "Kids who learn to handle money are often pretty good at making it later."

But as we return home from our shopping expedition, I don't feel proud; I feel weak.

Despite my best efforts to explain that families have different economic priorities, I'm a poor match for Nike, Nautica, Timberland, Tommy Hilfiger and Levis.

Similar melodramas played out in malls all over America this month and last. They cut across racial, ethnic and class lines - and they're hardly limited to teen-agers. Even the youngest consumers wield a staggering amount of financial clout that many parents feel powerless to direct.

In 1995, the 4- to 12-year-old age group spent $11 billion on everything from junk food to televisions. Of that sum, half came from allowance, one-third from chores and the remainder from gifts, according to James McNeal of Texas A&M; University.

While this amount is significant, the adult purchases that children influence - from cereal to automobiles - are even greater, with some estimates running as high as $200 billion.

So, why fight it? The rationalizations abound: Parents and kids have struggled over purchases for generations; adjusted for inflation, today's high-ticket items are no different from the purchases made by the parents of baby boomers during the 1950s and '60s.

Worshiping at the Temple of Coolness is as much a part of adolescence as acne; the right designer logo can bestow self-esteem and confidence. (Hey, isn't that what it's all about?)

And here's my favorite: "Just be happy he's not spending it on alcohol or drugs."

Given a choice, I'll take conspicuous consumption over criminal ingesting, but it seems that as youngsters' appetites and budgets have grown, so should parental responsibility.

Today - when a bike costs what a car used to and a car costs what a house used to - leaving the decision-making totally in children's hands just feels wrong, regardless of where the funds come from.


Because business has aggressively targeted the youth market in ways unthinkable a decade ago. "As the teen population grows, marketers recognize what a powerful consumer segment they have become," said Marla Grossberg of Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill.-based company that tracks the buying habits of young consumers.

Because most youngsters are financial illiterates. To them, a check is just paper, a credit card looks no different than a library card and cash machines spit out ten-spots like an arcade game.

"Society does a good job of teaching kids how to read and write, but a lousy job when it comes to teaching sound money management principles," said Michael Searls, president of Colorado-based Summit Financial Products, which recently launched a product called the Allowance Kit, designed to teach kids how to spend, save and invest.

A financial planner, Searls noted that he could handle clients' millions but was pretty clumsy when it came to teaching fiscal responsibility to his own children. "My advice was pretty much limited to 'Don't spend it all.' We know how to tell them what not to do, but not what to do."

Child development experts agree. The idea that free spending somehow equips youngsters with real-world money management skills is flawed from the outset because it's all discretionary income, said Lawrence Kutner, a columnist for Parents magazine.

"If [children] think all your income is extra money, it leads to a very warped perspective," he said.

Paul Burgett, dean of students at the University of Rochester, sees the end result of poor money management. "Every year American Express, Visa and MasterCard come on campus - then they leave it to us to mop up the mess they created."

Burgett has had more than a few students find their way to his office, in hock up to their eyeballs.

Recently, he handed one a pair of scissors to cut up her credit cards. She did but sobbed the entire time.

"We worked out a budget, which slashed expenditures to the bone. It took 18 months to climb out of debt, but she learned a valuable lesson. It looks like it's about money, but it's really about self-discipline," he said.

The lesson of delayed gratification is a difficult one to grasp - and one that has eluded many adults, as evidenced by the surge in personal bankruptcies.

So, at least this time, the Andre Agassi shirt stayed in the store.

My son's money stayed in his wallet. I don't want to relegate him to geekdom, but I also don't want to raise a child who can't distinguish between his wants and his needs.

Even if he pouts all the way home.

Bonnie Miller Rubin writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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