WHEN Wendy Postle’s two children were younger, saying “yes” gave her great joy. Yes to all those toys. The music lessons. The blowout birthday parties.
But as her son and daughter approached adolescence, yes turned into a weary default. “Sometimes it was just easier to say, ‘O.K., whatever,’ than to have the battle of ‘no,’ ” said Mrs. Postle, a working mother who lives in Hilliard, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Columbus.
This year her husband’s 401(k) savings are evaporating. Medical bills are nipping at the couple’s heels. Gas prices are still taking a toll. Mrs. Postle recently decided that although she and her husband had always sacrificed their own luxuries for Zach, 13, and Kaitlyn, 15, the teenagers would now have to cut back as well.
“No” could no longer be the starting gun of family fights. It would have to be an absolute.
“I tried to tell Kaitlyn, ‘We’ll get the Hollister jeans at a thrift store,’ ” Mrs. Postle recalled. “She got angry and said: ‘That’s gross! Other people wore them!’ ”
Indulged. Entitled. Those labels have become hot-glued to middle-class and affluent teenagers born after the last major economic downturn, in the late 1980s. They were raised in comparatively flush times by parents who believed that keeping children happy, stimulated and successful, no matter the cost, was an unassailable virtue. A 2007 study by the Harrison Group, a market research firm in Waterbury, Conn., found that nearly 75 percent of parents caved in to their children’s nagging for new video games, half within two weeks.
But as the economy totters, many families have no choice but to cut back, which may lead to a shift in their thinking about money and permissiveness. Last week a semiannual survey of 7,000 15- to 18-year-olds by Piper Jaffray, an investment bank and research firm, showed that annual discretionary spending by teenagers, whose money comes from allowance, gifts and part-time jobs, had dropped 27 percent to $2,600, from its spring 2006 peak of $3,560.
“Parents are suddenly saying ‘no’ and their kids are saying, ‘What do you mean?’ ” said Robert D. Manning, an economist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of “Credit Card Nation.”
These are difficult conversations. Panicked, stressed parents are struggling to explain and impose restraints, just when teenagers are expecting more spending money, not less. Many adolescents respond with anger at what they see as a bait-and-switch world, fear for their families and confusion about budgeting.
Family therapists, teachers and parents tell anecdotes about teenagers who are badly rattled by the news, in denial, or both. A daughter is shaken as her mother calls for an emergency family meeting. The son of a Wall Street financier whose fortune has collapsed tauntingly tells his father he can take care of himself: he will sell more marijuana.
“It is an unbelievable shock to affluent families that their lifestyles are gone for good,” Dr. Manning said, “and their children are ill prepared for it.”
Mrs. Postle’s teenagers asked whether the family was poor. Mrs. Postle, who teaches economics at the Columbus chapter of Junior Achievement and whose husband manages heating and cooling commercial installations, felt insulted.
The family was not poverty-stricken, she responded, but staying solvent was costly. Although many parents consider finances the province of grown-ups, Mrs. Postle decided her children were too insulated. She showed them the monthly bills.
The teenagers were stunned. When her son saw the mortgage bill he thought it was an annual payment.
American teenagers, many of whom have weak quantitative skills, are generally naïve about finance. In a 2007 study for Charles Schwab, the financial services company, 62 percent of teenagers believed they were prepared to deal with the financial world after high school. That boast was undercut when they were probed about topics like check-writing and paying bills.
One recent morning, students in an economics seminar at Elisabeth Irwin High School, a private school in Manhattan, displayed an emerging grasp of the financial meltdown. But when discussing their personal finances, many just seemed bewildered.
National surveys put older teenagers’ average monthly allowance at $100 and upward. At Elisabeth Irwin, the weekly allowances ranged from $20 to $150. Some parents gave students strict allocation instructions; others, only vague direction.
And while many had debit and credit cards, some were hard pressed to explain the difference. “I don’t understand why I got charged for an overdraft,” one junior said. One girl admitted to having once run up $5,000 on her credit card. Lesson learned! Now she rarely uses the card. “ I make my mom buy it!” she said.
To “earn” spending money, some students were required to do minimal chores, others to maintain minimal civility.
Regardless of family means, most did not have after-school jobs.
“I’ve never had a job,” said Nazir Khan, 16, a first-generation American whose father is a cook and whose mother is an occasional caregiver. “My parents want me to focus on schoolwork.”
They all felt the pressure and the desire to acquire: their knowledge of brands and prices was encyclopedic. “The stuff it takes for them to be perceived as middle class is extraordinary,” said Tom Murphy, who teaches the high school’s “Economics and Society” seminar. “Laptops, Xboxes, iPods, phones — and it’s nonnegotiable.”
The messages about money from their families struck some as contradictory. Joe Sharp, 16, said his parents had given him whatever he wanted. But his grandmother would talk about World War II and rationing. “I’d say, ‘It’s not the war, we’re fine,’ ” he said. “But she taught me that saving is definitely important.”
After class, one girl said: “We are so being bribed. I’m bad at math but if I get an A, my father will give me a designer bag.”
And yet, she added shyly: “I love the gifts but I’d really like to spend time with him. But my parents are working harder than ever and they’re so worried. I don’t want to force him to spend time with me. I can be a real earache.”
Discernable in their anecdotes were the abrupt, flailing efforts of parents to rein in their teenagers, as difficult economic times bear down.
One girl said: “My dad will buy three new shirts but then he’ll tell me to cut down on my spending. So I don’t know what to think.”
A junior recounted a fight with her father. She had shouted: “I can afford the things I buy because I don’t have to pay expenses or rent.” He had retorted: “Now you’re going to: $25 a night and $15 for your friends who stay over!” (Threat rescinded.)
Some students were beginning to translate the economic crisis personally. A few thought it had become unseemly to flaunt goods with designer labels. Ruth Jurgensen, the principal of the diverse school, noted that many students were alarmed about dwindling college aid.
Even their fear frightens them. Chappell Laird, 16, knows that her father, a restaurant owner, and mother, a photographer’s agent, are affected by the economic downturn. But she doesn’t seek further information. “It scares me to know more,” she said. “It makes me nervous.”
Parents hardly relish these conversations. As they sit down with their teenagers, they are agonizing over their own feelings of failure. “Parents are going to feel they’re not giving their kids everything,” said Madeline Levine, a California psychologist who writes about adolescents in her book “The Price of Privilege.” “The kids are going to be confused. They’ve never known not having what they want. And the parents are going to have to tolerate their kids’ anger.”
Wendy Postle said her teenagers have become angrier and more argumentative about money. “They seem so selfish,” she said. She wondered whether the fault was hers, whether that early lavishness was a parental failing.
In familial relationships, money can be a proxy for love and trust, said Steven J. Goldstein, a psychologist who teaches at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in Manhattan. When money has to be limited, underlying tensions become exacerbated. In his practice he has recently seen adolescent eating disorders become more severe and mood swings increase.
But for some families, he added, the financial crisis has been a rallying point, compelling them to articulate values and priorities for the first time. An unemployed father, he said, learned to speak with his teenagers “in such a way that they wouldn’t panic, but gave them a sense that he was going through a different journey, not one just filled with success.”
Last month Hildegaard Link’s two daughters, 15 and 11, rushed home, frightened by headlines about the stock market. The older one “totally freaked out,” recalled Ms. Link, a civil engineer in Brooklyn. “She asked: ‘What does this mean for me? For my family?’ ”
Ms. Link reassured her but asked whether everyone could do with a little less. “Let’s brainstorm.”
The girls made choices: lessons for either drum or violin, every two weeks; fewer restaurant dinners; one new school outfit. “They were not resentful,” Ms. Link reported. “They were relieved to be part of the process.”
Market researchers say that teenagers are, out of necessity, adjusting. Jeffrey Klinefelter, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, said last week’s survey showed that the amount teenagers allocated for clothes had increased 1 percent, but that they were patronizing stores with lower-priced labels.
Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group, the market research firm, said he had seen an evolution in family negotiations. As parents drop housecleaning and lawn services, they are asking their teenagers to pitch in, for pay.
“That reduces the cash flow for parents without reducing discretionary spending for kids,” he said. “Parents are asking kids to take responsibility for what is really important to them.”
Anecdotes like these prompt economists and therapists to find something positive in all the economic turbulence. “The sooner we have these conversations in the family and as a society,” said Dr. Manning, the economist, “the sooner we can focus on core values, and have a more realistic dialogue about the meaning of happiness and money.”
KAITLYN POSTLE is having a bumpy adjustment. She has a weekend baby-sitting job and can’t wait to turn 16, so she can find work at a mall.
“I used to ask for things and my parents would say, ‘We can’t do that,’ ” she said in a phone interview. “So I would throw a tantrum and get an attitude. They used to give in a lot. But that doesn’t work now.”
The good news, she said, is that when she shops at thrift stores, she can buy more for her money. But now that she has a temporary license — freedom! — how will she pay for gas?
She assumes she will have to attend a local college and live at home. “I don’t have a problem with that,” she said. “Whatever. That way, I won’t have to pay for everything.”
In the background, a half-shout of protest could be heard. “Of course,” Kaitlyn added, “my parents aren’t too happy about that.”
6 months ago