The Problem With Linking Spending to Sacrifice

The New York Times suggests parents give teens less money than they need for basic expenses (food, clothes, transportation, smartphone) so they learn how to sacrifice. I’m not sure that’s the best idea.

Photo credit: obihirorabbit, CC BY 2.0.

Over at The New York Times, Ron Lieber has a guide for parents dealing with “teenage data hogs:”

Living With a Teenage Data Hog

As far as OMG TEENS USING SMARTPHONES articles go, this piece seems perfectly reasonable. Lieber acknowledges that smartphones ride right on that line between want and need; parents want and need to be able to communicate with their children, and teens want and need to be able to communicate with their friends.

Let’s cut the “nobody needs a smartphone to communicate” argument off before it gets started. We are in a world where one of the most common methods of sharing information and connecting with friends and family comes via electronic device—and this is especially important to teenagers. The Guardian explains how teens’ social and emotional lives suffer when they lose access to their smartphones:

‘I worried people would forget about me’: can teenagers survive without social media?

For this generation, social media is where they make sense of the world. It is increasingly where everything that is important to them is taking place. Going online is no longer the thing you do to take a break from real life. It is real life.

Back at The New York Times, Lieber also offers a reasonable plan for parents who want to deal with their teens’ escalating data costs:

I suggest the budgeting approach: Parents pay for a certain amount of data each month, the children track how much they’ve used, and then they pay for anything beyond that allotted amount.

Then he adds this:

Parents who can afford it might consider raising a child’s allowance some to put the decision just within their reach — and make the possibility of waiting on an upgraded phone more enticing.

How much more allowance might they get? It depends on whether you’re asking them to use allowance to cover lunch, snacks, transportation and clothing, too. But you could increase the allowance enough to pay for 50 or 75 percent of a basic data plan, so that the choice to purchase it would involve some sacrifices elsewhere.

I’m stuck on the idea that spending has to involve sacrifice. To be a responsible parent, in this case, means giving your child slightly less money than they need so they will have to forego food and clothing in order to pay for their basic data plan.

Budgeting is an important life skill, and at some point everybody has to learn how to make their allowance (or their income) last the entire month.

However, deliberately putting a teenager in a position where you want them to sacrifice something seems unfair. Teaching them that spending money involves sacrifice also feels wrong, in a long-term financial philosophy sense. Spending money involves prioritization, sure. I have definitely said “I’ll buy something else later so I can buy something more important now.” I’ve also cut back on certain areas of my spending so I can focus on where I really want my dollars to go.

But I’ve also sacrificed, to the point that it’s become an ingrained habit and a long-term financial philosophy I wish I didn’t have. I still think “I bought this $30 thing that I wanted but wasn’t on my list of items to purchase. Now I have to give up something else I was planning to buy.” I did that just this weekend, even though I didn’t need to. I could have bought both things and had money to spare.

That’s what linking money to sacrifice can do. You feel obligated to counterbalance your unexpected expenses—like, say, the new responsibility of paying for your own data plan—with sacrifice, whether or not that sacrifice is financially necessary.

And before you say “that sounds like budgeting,” I want to clarify that sacrifice is different than budgeting. Budgeting means figuring out what you can afford within your means. Sacrifice means punishing yourself for having wants and needs.

At this point I need to acknowledge the complexity of all of this, starting with the fact that if you don’t have enough money to begin with, saying “you don’t have to sacrifice” sounds ridiculous. (I’ve been there. I’ve been the person who counted out the exact number of quarters she needed to ride the bus to her telemarketing job on non-peak hours, and who knew that taking too many extra bus trips to the library or the park would mean not having enough money to get to work.)

So. With all of that in mind, what do you think? Is “spending involves sacrifice” a good financial lesson to teach young people? Are you also stuck with the sacrifice philosophy as an adult, and do you give up items you want and need even if you can afford them? Is there a better way of looking at budgeting and saving and spending?

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