How Much Financial Freedom Should I Give My 15-Year-Old?

Tim is a single parent of two teenagers. His 15-year-old wants a checking account on his own without Tim having any access to it. Should Tim just let him do it and suffer the consequences? Dave says no way.

QUESTION: Tim in Kansas City is a single parent of two teenagers. His 15-year-old son wants a checking account on his own without Tim having any access to it. Should Tim just let him do it and suffer the consequences? Dave says no way.

ANSWER: My roof, my food—you do what the flip I say. That’s how that works. Fifteen-year-olds are brain damaged. You don’t know who you’re talking to. It’s Sybil. Half the time, they’re 35 years old, and they’re mature. The other half the time, they’re five years old.

He gets to do things that I let him do, and I let him do them based on his ability to perform well in his life. To the extent you perform well in your life, you get a longer rope. If you don’t, I shorten your rope. The more doofus things you do, the less things you get to do. The more smart, wise and grown-up things you do, the more grown-up things you get to do. “Son, you arguing with me about this is one of those things that means you don’t get to do other things because I’m not going to fight with you about this.” No is a complete sentence. You can tell I’ve raised teenagers.

Now that I kind of spoke strength into this thing, let’s back up and kind of walk through how to help him with this. What I would do if this was my son is I would sit down and say, “Son, you do not have the capacity to manage this completely by yourself today. I’m going to walk with you—just like you don’t have the capacity to drive a car by yourself today. I’m going to walk with you until you learn how to drive. To the extent you handle money well, you’re going to get more and more leeway. To the extent you handle the car well, you’re going to get more and more leeway. I am older than you. I am wiser than you. I’m not perfect. I’ve done some stupid things in my life. That’s how I can recognize stupid so quickly.

“To the extent I can negotiate with you and talk to you like a man as your father, then we’ll have a manly discussion between us two guys, and I’m going to be the older guy who’s leading you away from stupid. To the extent you’re going to be an emotional four year old, I’m going to freaking treat you like one. Now which way do you want this to be?”

“No, you are not having a car out of control and just turn you loose. That’s not happening. Is there a way that we can get to the point that you a) get your driver’s permit b) get your driver’s license and c) get to drive the car by yourself? Yes, we can work up to that over time, and that is by you proving yourself. The same thing goes with a checking account, but you will not be handling money except under my supervision. You will not be handling automobiles except under my supervision. You will not be handling your life except under my supervision. That is my job. I'm your father. That’s why God put me here, and I will do my job. That’s either going to be pleasant for you or unpleasant for you based on your choices.”

That’s how I talk to mine—just real calm. They can go into orbit, and they can feel entitled, and they can flop in the floor, and they can have red face, or they can sit like an adult and say, “Okay. Show me what to do, and let’s do it together, and we’ll work on this.” Some of them are calmer than others, and some of them have more drama than others.

Nobody said I was a perfect parent. We just said we’re the parents. I didn’t say I was even good at it, but I’m still freaking in charge. Just because I mess up doesn’t mean I resign my position of authority. I’m still in charge of your life, and I’m still ahead of you. That’s how this works.

The problem is that they go into drama mode, and what I do when they go into drama mode is I just shut them down. I just say, “Listen, we’re not going to talk about this right now because you’re losing your freedoms with every word that you speak. You need to go in the other room, and you need to breathe a minute. The more immature you act, the less leeway—the less rope I’m going to give you—for your life. The more mature you act, the better your life is going to be. Right now, you’re acting like you’re freaking four. We’re not having this discussion.”

No, he’s not opening a checking account on his own. Every dollar of money he makes while he lives under your roof is yours. It’s not his. Then you choose to let him handle it the way you want it handled for his benefit. That means he needs to be giving some money away out of every paycheck. He needs to be saving some money out of every paycheck. He needs to be having some money to spend out of every paycheck. The more wise he is in each of those three categories, the more leeway he’ll have in making those decisions.

He’s not going to have enough rope to hang or pull. He’s going to lengthen the rope based on his behaviors. Then when he’s 20 and moves out or 18 and moves out, you’re going to toss him the rope. It’s going to be his. Your job is to teach him to be a man, and right now, he’s acting like a boy. You’re going to turn him into a citizen. That’s your job. You’re his dad. That’s how it works.