On my 17th birthday, I emerged from the DMV offices and squinted in the late November sun, looking for my mom. She was waiting in the car for me as I took my much anticipated written driver’s test. Having passed the road test, proving that I could, in fact, parallel park a car, the written test was the only thing between me, the open road, and freedom on Friday nights in my small town. I studied harder than I did for my school classes because I desperately wanted to drive. My efforts paid off, and on that monumental birthday, I passed with flying colors.
As I climbed into our rambling, old station wagon and eagerly told my mom the good news, she handed me a small, wrapped box. I took the box in my hands and slowly ripped off the pretty bow and wrapping paper. There, nestled in a box on a soft piece of cotton, lay a set of car keys. I shrieked with excitement, thinking that I had a new car awaiting me in our driveway at home. As I screamed and freaked out, my mom looked at me with bewildered amusement.
“Honey, those are the keys to my station wagon. Feel free to borrow it anytime!”
Talk about a birthday buzzkill, man.
And so that’s how I found myself driving my brother and I to and from school and cruising the backroads of our sleepy town in my mother’s beat-up, old station wagon. If I was lucky enough to be able to borrow the car on a Saturday night, I parked that whale of a car between my friends’ brand-new, shiny sports cars at the movie theater. And nothing says, “I’m the height of cool” when you drive yourself to a school dance in the family’s wagon.
High school was an embarrassing time on many levels for me.
And while my parents eventually helped me buy a new car when I headed to college, that help only went so far. My parents slipped the payment book into my graduation card, along with a note of congratulations and a few hundred bucks to get me started.
My parents sort of sucked at big birthday presents. Or so I thought at the time.
When I was struggling to pay my rent, the burden of a car payment and hefty insurance fees fell hard on my shoulders. I was forced to alter my social spending, and there were plenty of times that I felt nauseous when I looked at my bank account because the numbers threatened to dip below zero every time a check cashed from my account.
But on the day I called the bank to get the exact amount for my last payment, I felt like I was finally an adult. That’s not to say that I didn’t still suck at budgeting when I was in my 20s, but my parents taught me a valuable lesson: Big-ticket items aren’t just handed to you when you are 16. You have to work for them, earn them, and appreciate them.
And my son, who is quickly approaching his Sweet 16, is about to learn that same lesson from his father and me.
We are preparing him though. We’ve already had open discussions about how he’s not going to get a set of wheels to squeal out of our driveway on Saturday nights. We’ve been clear with him that we will not be footing the bill for his driving pleasures and that he, too, is welcome to borrow our family vehicles should he want to take a date to the movies.
But though we aren’t buying him a car out of our family budget, we have helped him map out a plan so he can save enough money to eventually buy his own. We’ve helped him learn about saving money weekly and have discussed the type of odd jobs that are appropriate for kids his age. We’ve encouraged him to get a part-time job when he’s old enough and have made it clear that, while having a car would be fun as a teenager, it’s not a necessity.
Further, we’ve also told him that his schoolwork comes before any money-making scheme he dreams up. No need for a car if you aren’t driving to college, son. #sorrynotsorry
Not buying our son a car has little to do with my experience as a teen. While, yes, I now appreciate that my parents taught me a valuable lesson about money management, encouraging financial responsibility in our children today is more about challenging the immediate-gratification way of life that seems to be the norm these days.
Kids today are used to being given information and products immediately. They are Generation One-Click: They have the world and all its spoils right at their fingertips. Gone are the days when you had to wait by the phone for your crush to call or sit by the radio in hopes that your favorite song would air so that you could record it (and bonus if you could catch it without a DJ talking through the intro). Kids don’t have to learn the frustratingly slow art of cursive, and they don’t have to wait anxiously through the summer months for their favorite shows to return in the fall. And kids today don’t know what it’s like to have to eagerly await anything because Amazon and their two-day shipping has all but ruined anticipation.
On the day that my son passes his driver’s test, he’ll be given a set of keys to our family cars. The only new car waiting in the driveway for him will be the one he purchases for himself. And if it takes him until he’s 26 to be able to buy a new set of wheels, so be it. I’ll just be glad I won’t have to get out of my pajamas on a Saturday night to go pick him up in our family truckster. I’ll be glad to share.