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Big Decisions: Buying Your Teen a Car

Big Decisions: Buying Your Teen a Car

 

The halls of my high school were filled with kids from two sides of the tracks, figuratively speaking. The senior parking lot reflected the dichotomy like nothing else: brand new BMW’s and Mercedes flanked Geo Prisms held together with duct tape and crossed fingers. The first set were always the result of sweet sixteen gifts, and the second set, the result of summer jobs and months of saving. As a proud member of the second group, I grew up pondering how I would handle the situation decades later when I would become the parent of a teenager. The internal debate went something like this:

The Case for the Big Gift

If--and it’s a big if--a parent has the means to buy their son or daughter a brand new car on their sixteenth birthday, should they? Safety is a reasonable argument. Driving around in a clunker could put them in danger in a crash (outdated safety standards) or could leave them stranded on the side of the road at any moment. A quality vehicle has genuine safety benefits.

Another consideration is independence. Handing your teen the keys not only allows them get to their after-school jobs, but also escape questionable situations. As my father-in-law argues, what other partygoer would you rather be in control of their transportation?

The Case for Saving Up

Safety, independence, and of course, generosity, are valid arguments to be made. But there’s a glaring factor in opposition: character. Before their sixteenth birthday, few purchases require much preparation of saving. New shoes? Next paycheck. Movies? Dig in the couch cushions for change. But a car forces a teen to set a goal, make a plan, and deny themselves instant gratification weekend after weekend. When their saving finally pays off an the purchase is made, their value for the automobile will surpass anything that could have been given to them. I cherished the 1987 300ZX I purchased for $800 when I turned sixteen. No AC? No problem. It was mine, hard earned and carefully driven.

The Strategic Compromise

So what if you have the means to purchase your teen a car, but want to instill a sense of ownership? Here’s an idea for a crafty compromise taken from the pages of the philanthropy playbook: matching dollars. As a teen, a handful of weekly hours at minimum wage is likely what’s available to them. So come up with a matching system that offers to double, triple, or quadruple whatever they can earn and save in a set period of time. Even if money flows like water in your household, don’t deprive your child the opportunity to learn to save. It’s a lesson that could last long after the new car smell has worn off.

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