How to Handle Back-to-School Shopping With Teens

Set a budget and ask your kids to use their own money to keep spending under control.

Uh-oh. If Capital One’s annual Back-to-School Shopping Survey is any indication, parents and teens are in for some tense moments in the weeks ahead.

-- Nearly half (47%) of parents questioned consider price to be the most important factor when making a back-to-school purchase. About the same percentage of teens (46%) said style and appearance top their priority list.

-- Among parents, 40% plan to do the majority of their shopping at discount retailers and 29% expect to shop in department stores. For teens, those numbers are reversed: 47% expect to head to department stores and 29% to discounters.

-- Clothing tops the shopping list for a majority of both parents and teens. But a sizable percentage of teens -- 21% -- said technology products are “must haves.” None of the parents had those items at the top of their list.

Meanwhile, 31% of parents plan to spend between $150 and $200 per child, and 24% plan to spend more than $200 per child. Add it all up and families could be in for some heated -- and costly -- confrontations in shopping-mall parking lots.

But there are plenty of things you can do before you leave home to defuse arguments and even give kids a few positive lessons in money management:

-- Tell them exactly how much you’re able to spend, and let them have a say in how to divvy it up.

-- Have the kids take an inventory of their closets to see what they really need versus what they merely want.

-- Get the skinny on all the places, both online and off, where you can find the best deals for everything on your list. See When to Shop to Get the Best Back-to-School Deals, 8 Ways to Spend Less on Back-to-School Electronics and 2013 Sales Tax Holidays for Back-to-School Shopping.

-- Map out your destinations beforehand so that you don’t get sidetracked when you hit the mall.

And here is the single most important thing you can do to keep kids’ shopping habits in check: Have them spend their own money. In the Capital One survey, 62% of teens reported receiving an allowance, and 63% of those get between $10 and $50 each month. Yet 65% of teens don’t plan to help pay for their back-to-school shopping.

An allowance should never be a free ride, with kids having total license to spend the money on anything they want. It should always come with spending responsibilities -- and for teens, spending money on their own clothes and other furnishings is a top priority. You can make such an arrangement in any number of ways:

-- If the kids already get an allowance, earmark a specific amount for clothing. If they don’t, consider giving them a clothing allowance until they’re old enough to earn money at a job.

-- Agree that you will pick up the tab for their needs (clothing) and they will shell out for their wants (a smart phone).

-- Agree that you’ll pay for clothing basics (underwear, coats, shoes) and they’ll cover the cost of fashion extras (tops, jeans, jewelry).

-- Set a price limit per item -- say, $50 for a pair of shoes or $25 for jeans -- and let them pick up the extra cost if they want something more expensive.

-- Make a shopping list and attach a realistic price tag to each item. Once it’s in writing, you’ll be less likely to deviate from the plan and more likely to accomplish what you set out to do.

Whatever your strategy, the principle is the same. As one loyal reader of this column always tells me, “Kids need skin in the game.” I would add that kids are willing to spend unlimited amounts of money as long as it’s yours. When their money is on the line, it’s a whole new ball game.

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