Chippewa Herald * March 15, 2007  

Teens learn quickly when it's their dime

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

The warm weather arrived just in time. I spent part of last Saturday teaching Ben, my 17-year-old son, how to change the oil and filter in his new car, and I hate working on cars when it's cold.

New, in this case, is relative. The car was new to him, but it's been on the streets since the Reagan Administration. He got a great deal -- $700 for a 1988 Honda Accord.

It wasn't quite what he originally set out to buy. For about nine months now, he's been looking through ads and buying the Trading Post trying to find his dream car. He had his radar up for some kind of fancy sports car that looks nice, is reliable, and costs under $1500.

He didn't exactly end up with a sports car, but he was thrilled to be able to buy a reliable vehicle from a friend he could trust, without even having to break the $1000 barrier.

Ben often reminds us that many of his friends drive much nicer cars, but his argument falls on deaf ears for a couple reasons.

First, his 1988 Honda Accord is three years newer than the car I still drive every day! (Nothing like leading by example.)

Second, for years he has known the rules of owning a car in our family. We set the same guidelines for our children that my siblings and I had growing up: If we wanted a car, we had to pay cash for it and had to pay for the insurance costs up front.

That's not meant to be a deterrent from car ownership. Honest! In fact, every one of my siblings and I bought a car, and I suspect the same will be true for my own five kids.

It's just a way to teach wise money management. I know too many teenagers who get a loan for a car and then have to miss out on unique high school opportunities in music, sports, drama, or academics -- all because they have to work extra hours to pay off a stupid loan. (Proverbs 22:7 says that "the borrower is slave to the lender.")

Believe me, I am all for having teenagers work hard and earn money. But I think they should have the freedom to work or not work in any season based on their schedule; they should not HAVE to work to pay off a loan -- especially for a lousy investment like a car, which loses value over time.

Car ownership is a great thing for teens, though. For one thing, they don't have to engage in negotiations for the family car every time they need to borrow it (or worse, have to call for a ride). Also, a car owner can keep his own vehicle as clean as he wants; he's not forced to haul around younger siblings as he would be if it were the family car he was borrowing.

But the best part of car ownership is that it teaches financial management better than any course in the world could.

A month ago, it would've been the last thing in the world on Ben's mind to want to learn how to remove an oil filter. Same goes for me before my first car. But all of a sudden, with this marvelous machine to care for, he wants to know all about it.

I think it's great to learn from your mistakes. But it also doesn't hurt to learn from someone else's mistakes. I saved Ben the embarrassment of watching quarts of new oil running down the driveway by telling him to make sure to put the oil plug back in BEFORE he starts adding the new oil -- unlike MY first oil change.

Cars aren't the only area where ownership teaches stewardship. Ben is also very careful with his cell phone use. More often than not, when he gets an incoming call at home, he checks the caller ID, waits until it stops ringing, and then calls that person back on our land line. That kid is cheaper than I am!

I had dinner just last week with an engineer whose daughter ran up an $800 cell phone bill -- in ONE MONTH! Ben knew with absolute certainty that we would NEVER buy him a regular cell phone with a monthly contract. So he took it upon himself last year to find a good deal on a prepaid phone.

His phone has a camera and other bells and whistles, but costs him only $100 for the entire year. That includes 1000 minutes, or about 83 minute a month, so he's careful about not spending too much time on it lest he be hit with the exorbitant penalty of ten cents a minute for exceeding his prepaid minutes.

All I know is that we never have to go over his bills or nag him about usage. He's in charge of his phone!

Does owning your own car or cell phone really make you more careful with finances?

We overheard Ben making an offer to his ten-year-old brother on the way home from church Sunday, when the weather was even nicer than it was Saturday: "David, I'll take you cruising today with the moon roof open...if you pay for gas."

I rest my case.

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