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The Teenage Economy

In a city obsessed with money, kids are, too. And the choices parents make have powerful effects on the separate, sometimes cruel, world of adolescence.


"I hate money!” the young girl blurted out, her cheeks flushed and quivering. And why not? Money is an issue that plagues New York kids much the way it does the adults raising them. Kids fret over not having enough money, they plot how to wheedle more, they organize social systems around who’s got how much. It’s brutal. Few, however, hate money for the same reason this girl does. Wiping her red-rimmed eyes, she added, “I wish I didn’t have so much!”

Listening to this, to her “distressed” friend, Caitlin Keating had to bite her glossed lower lip to avoid saying something rude. Can you hear yourself? Do you know how you sound? The other day you said that you and your sister were worth more than the Olsen twins! Caitlin and her friend are 15-year-olds, and they were chatting after Italian class at the Upper West Side private school where both are sophomores—a place where the kids loll about in nanny-ironed uniforms customized with Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, a sanctum so dominated by money that to overtly acknowledge it is the ultimate taboo. And yet to Caitlin, it often seems like that’s all anyone does: kids hustling, kids obsessing, kids turning downright savage.

Take what had just happened: Throughout class, Caitlin had watched her friend—who came from a prominent billionaire family and was quite likely the most affluent kid in this affluent school—get chastised for being so wealthy by another student whose father worked as a fashion designer and wasn’t exactly living the hard-knock life himself. A charmingly laid-back girl, Caitlin says she has always felt older than her peers, secretly detached, and has a tendency to view her surroundings through a vaguely anthropological lens. She found the treatment of her friend to be unfair and—given that most everyone here had parents forking over 25 grand a year in tuition—ludicrous.

But she was annoyed nonetheless. Because despite her friend’s gilded existence—despite her trust fund, despite her penthouse bedroom with remote-controlled blinds, despite the fact that even her freakin’ cats had their own bathroom—the girl never had any money. Her allowance was a flat $60 a week, a pittance in this world. The girl’s wardrobe was heavily Old Navy. She’d even had a stint in public school. She was, hands down, the poorest rich girl in the city.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Caitlin, a few days after the incident, walking near Lincoln Center. “We go out at night, right? And I’m always paying for her cabs! We go out at lunch, and she’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so broke! Can you buy me a Vitamin Water?’ Her mom’s obsessed with not spoiling her, but come on. Mooching off friends is the solution?” She pauses. All around her, parents and their kids drift in and out of stores, walking with identical struts, sporting identical clothes, spending with identical verve—squint and it becomes hard to tell the adults from the children. “And to say you wish you didn’t have so much money! What is that?”

Caitlin lets out a laugh.

“The girl owes me at least a hundred dollars!”

How Much Does a Kid Really Need?
The predicament of Caitlin’s friend is, for the most part, a perversion unique to extreme wealth—most kids, even in New York, would be thrilled to get $60 a week from their parents. And yet for all its cartoonish pseudo-tragedy, the outburst provides a glimpse into something more universal: the ever-more-powerful role that money—and allowances, in particular—plays in the life of a teenager. Think of the allowance as a metaphor for one of the cruelest ironies adolescents confront: Your ability to act like an adult is still controlled by adults. Talk to kids, and they’ll tell you—how allowances have an incessant way of creeping up on friendships, provoking ire and envy, how they simmer with the potential to stratify friends, even inside stratospheres where that isn’t supposed to happen.

Parents are oppressed by the subject of allowance, too. “I would say that money is the most uncomfortable thing to talk about,” says a parent who’s putting a kid through private school on a salary not designed for such a burden. “Parents are more willing to call each other up and say ‘I understand there was drinking at your house’ or ‘I hear that eighth-grade girls are having sex in the locker room’ than ‘Why are you giving your kid so much money?’ ”

The issue goes beyond just how much money to give a kid; you’ve got to consider how to give it, which raises thorny questions. Credit or debit? Should it be connected to chores? What about cash bonuses for good grades? At what point does responsibility start to repress? When does comfort veer into corruption? Sure, giving kids credit cards means you risk watching them morph into chronic shoppers, but cash might turn them into coke fiends—so what’s the lesser of two evils? “That’s the real reason a lot of us have credit cards now,” says a junior at an Upper East Side private school. “I didn’t ask for one—my parents just don’t want me to be able to buy drugs.”

Data on allowances is hard to come by. But conversations with dozens of teenagers from public and private schools yield some rough approximations: They describe a typical New York allowance to be in the neighborhood of $20 a week, depending on whether the money is given as a simple token, a reward for specific work, a means of quieting a whiny kid, or a way of fostering self-sufficiency, requiring the child to buy his own clothes, groceries, and school supplies. Kyle Brandt-Lubart, a 16-year-old sophomore at Bronx Science, receives $45 a week, a figure she and her mother arrived at after making an extensive list of what she spends money on: clothing, transportation, food, going out on weekends. “I think it works well enough,” she says. “I learn to manage money, even if it’s on a small scale. At the same time, I’m supposed to save $5 a week, but that never actually happens.”

And then there are the private-school kids, who—shocker!—get substantially more, between $100 and $300 a week on average, often in a combination of cash and credit and debit cards. (Such arrangements are thoughtfully facilitated by corporate America. Visa offers a card called Visa Buxx specifically designed for parents to give to kids; last year, MasterCard came under fire for issuing a Hello Kitty debit card that to some seemed targeted toward toddlers.) But these sums, while exorbitant, aren’t always being lavished on spoiled kids. Take Peter, a junior at an Upper West Side public school: He receives $100 a week from his mother, but he has to work for it—cleaning the hallways of the downtown apartment building his family owns, which alienates him from his friends, who are given money just for breathing. Not long ago I had lunch with a junior at an East Side private school who was paid an actual salary by her parents: $16,000 per year in quarterly payments, the figure increasing as she gets older; if she goes over, that’s her problem. “It’s supposed to help me understand responsibility,” she told me with a shrug, adding that while she “guesses it does,” the fact is that her parents still tend to pay for her clothes, food, transportation, everything. Which means the $16,000 ends up being something of a token. “I have stocks in some company, too,” she says, “and my dad keeps saying he’s going to explain it to me, but one of us is always too busy.”

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