Although today marks the start of the fifth week of the 2013-2014 school year for my two children, the start of the new school year is still weeks away for many children across the nation. If you’re the parent of a tween or teen and you haven’t started back-to-school shopping yet, I have a challenge for you. Let your children do their own shopping. Simply set a budget and let them figure out the best way to spend the money.

My mom did this back in the 1980s when I was a fashion-conscious high school student. I wanted a pair of acid-washed denim jeans and of course, they were expensive. So, my mom told me I had a fixed amount to spend and when I ran out, my back-to-school shopping was over. 

It is amazing how quickly I decided that I didn’t really need a pair of black acid-washed Guess jeans when I calculated how much budget money I’d have left after buying a single pair. I ended up buying an off-brand pair so that I could buy more with my fixed budget. Although it has been more than 20 years since my personal back-to-school budget challenge, the lesson has stuck with me all these years.

If you’re planning on giving your children a fixed budget and letting them make the choices, here are a four tips that will help:

1. Explain what items fall within the budget. Do you want your teen to be responsible for buying his back-to-school clothes but you will buy the school supplies? If so, let him know up front so that he understands what he needs to purchase and what falls outside of this budget challenge.

2. Determine if you’re going to be hands-off. If you feel your child is responsible enough to make the right decision most of the time, then go ahead and just let him have at it. If, instead, you’re concerned that he might get caught up in the latest trends and end up buying 5 t-shirts when he needs both tops and bottoms, let him know that you will be guiding him in his decisions. The guidance you offer can be something as simple as, “Have you figured out how you’re going to buy pants if you buy those shirts?”

3. Talk about the consequences. Both you and your child need to know, up-front, what is going to happen if the budget money is gone but the back-to-school shopping list still has items that need to be purchased. Will he wear last year’s shoes if he runs out of money before buying a pair this year? Can he swap chores for shoes? 

4. Plan ahead. Task your teen with creating a back-to-school shopping list. He should list out everything he needs for the new school year and then follow that up with wants. Setting a budget for each category is also a good idea and it will help you both avoid the uncomfortable situation described in the consequences section above.

The more you teach your children about personal finance and budgeting now, the more responsible they will be with their finances as an adult. Personal finance may seem like a common sense topic, but, in reality, it is complex and can be confusing to young adults. 

Have you given your tween or teen a back-to-school budget and left the decision-making up to him? If so, how’d it go?

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