Delayed Gratification – A hard lesson for my teenage son

By glblguy


Saturday is trash day. Since we live in rural area, we don’t have trash service and thus an hour or so on Saturday morning is spent collecting the trash and recyclables, loading them into my Expedition and taking them down to the remote trash drop off facility. I generally bring my older boys since they are a little stronger.

What started off as a chore has actually turned into a fun time where we can talk and spend some quality time together. We discuss all kinds of things, and ironically enough, I’ve actually started looking forward to Saturday morning trash runs.

The Mustang

This past Saturday, we were heading to the drop off facility and nearly there when son #1 (14 yo) yells “Dad! Is that a Mustang??”  I look to where he is pointing, and there sitting in a parking lot is a dark green 1967 Mustang. Written on the windshield is $5000 OBO.

Son #1 has become very interested in cars over the past few months as driving age slowly approaches.  Due to my brainwashing (and the brainwashing I received from my father) son #1 wants a Mustang. What can I say, he has great taste.

I replied, “Yep, it sure is”, knowing exactly what would come next. “Can we stop and look at it Dad??”  The look on his face made it impossible to say no. After dropping off the trash, we pulled into the parking lot to check it out.

The Mustang was rough. It needed a paint job, some minor body work, was missing a few trim pieces, the interior needed serious work, and the floor boards were rusted out (a common problem for early mustangs). The engine (a 289 V8) looked decent. I didn’t spot any major oil leaks or blown gaskets. In the car world, you would say this car “has potential”, which means with a decent amount of money and a great deal of time, it could be a really nice car.

My son fell in love. That car is all he has talked about for days. To be honest, if I had the cash right now to spare, I’d make an offer of $2500 and buy it, just to give myself and my boys a project car to work on. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while anyway. But, with us just recently moving and the various unexpected repairs we’ve had to make on the house, I just don’t have the reserve cash right now.

A hard financial lesson

Later on Saturday, his mind was going 90 mph trying to figure out how he could buy it. At one point, I said “Look, I know how bad you want that car, but you nor I have the money right now. You’re going to have to wait.”  While I hated to tell him that, the situation was a great opportunity to teach him the concept of delayed gratification.

This was also a great opportunity to remind him of something I’d been saying for years and hopefully use this opportunity to teach his younger brothers. Fortunately we were all there together working on our yard, so I asked Son #1, “How long have I been telling you to save your money, that one day you’ll want a car?”. He replied, sighing “Since I can remember.”  He knew where this was going. “What did you do instead?”  “I spent it on video games and other stuff, and now I wish I had that money.”  I asked his younger brothers if they all heard that. They did.

I then explained to him that there are lots of old Mustangs out there, and that while I know he thinks this is the only one for him, there will be another. He has asked us to stop giving him babysitting money and instead, place it into savings account for him automatically.

Financial lessons learned

From this story, I think we can all learn (or be reminded) of a few personal finance basics:

  1. Think long-term, not short term – While it’s difficult for a kid to think long term, for us adults it shouldn’t be. Instead of letting that money burn a hole in your pocket and spending it on frivolous things you don’t need, think about the things you want long term. Think through the impact to those longer term goals when you buy something in the short term. Practice delayed gratification.
  2. Make your savings automatic – While we told our son to save, we never forced him. Should we have? Maybe. But sometimes a lesson is much stronger when you learn “the hard way”. While not being able to buy that car right now is tough for him (and for me!), I know without a doubt it’s a financial lesson he will carry with him the rest of his life. He is now saving automatically to help avoid spending the money. I’m proud of him for that decision.
  3. Increase your income – Now that he realizes how bad he wants a car, and that he doesn’t have the money, he is looking for every opportunity to make money.  He’s going to hit our neighbors up this summer for yard work and I am most likely going to let him begin helping me with my blogging activities and pay him. I need some administrative help anyway.
  4. Avoid debt – He keeps asking me to loan him the money. He’s also asked if his grandparents might loan him the money to buy it. I refuse to let him borrow the money. I don’t want him to see debt as a quick solution to getting what he wants “now”. He needs to understand this his mistakes in the past have put him in the position he’s in, and take responsibility for making his financial situation better. Tough lesson now, but one that I think will benefit him in the long run. Tough love is exactly that, tough.

What do you think? Are there other things I could be doing to help him that I’m not? How do you feel about the way I’ve handled the situation? How how you handled similar situations with your kids? Add a comment!

Photo by: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³

37 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Delayed Gratification – A hard lesson for my teenage son”

  1. Nicki at Domestic Cents Says:

    Really great post. Good financial and parenting advice all in one. Thanks.

  2. bankman Says:

    Awww man, I was in love with the 67 Mustang when I was his age! I remember when I turned 16 there was a yellow 67 Mustang convertible in the paper for $5,000 (ok, it was 13 yrs ago!). I didn’t have the money at the time and my parents weren’t keen on me having an antique because of insurance, replacement parts, etc.

    I still look longingly at those cars, but drive a more sensible and paid off Mazda. :)

  3. Miranda Says:

    Great post. I think you handled it really well. The whole saving up thing and making a plan for your money thing doesn’t totally sink in until something like this happens. Good job for sticking to your guns!

  4. Neal Frankle Says:

    I also think you did a great job.

    I also think you gave your son a tremendous gift. He’ll see that he can actually defer instant gratification…..and survive!!

    Nice job sir!

  5. Grant Baldwin Says:

    We could all stand to use a lesson in delayed gratification. If students can grasp that as teenagers, they will have a long and wealthy life ahead of them.

  6. Gina Says:

    Great job Glbl guy! A tough lesson but one hopefully all of them will remember. Maybe have a picture of a car in his room to help him stay motivated. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Alissa Says:

    Hi there,

    I just wanted to tell you that I LOVE how you handled this with your son. I think that delayed gratification has gone by the wayside with such easy access to credit, and that we all need to re-learn this skill. I’m sure it would have felt wonderful to just buy him that car, or at least lend him the money to do so, but there’s a much greater life lesson at stake here. I wish my husband’s parents had taught him such a lesson when he was young. Instead, they’re always quick to give him what he needs, even now. My husband has been itching for a new computer for years (even though our old one was just fine, just a little on the older and slower side). His dad purchased us a new one, with the understanding that my husband would “work off” the payments by doing computer work for his dad’s business on an as-needed basis. Although he didn’t actually lend us any money, this is still a form of debt, as we now “owe” him work. To me, it’s the same thing. We do not own the computer free and clear.

    I also believe that our drive to save up and purchase something is MUCH stronger than paying for something after we have already acquired it. Why would we have incentive to work hard to pay for something that is already in our possession? We already have it! It’s not nearly as fun to take on extra jobs or sell things to pay for debt as it is to do those things in pursuit of a goal. I doubt your son would have been as quick to look for money-making opportunities had you loaned him the money and just told him to pay you back.

  8. Shawna Says:

    My 6 yr old has been bugging me for a new pet (a mouse). We already have a dog (hers) and a guinea pig (her brother’s). She started asking me for this mouse back in October or so, and I told her she would have to save up her own money for it. She gets gift money from relatives out of state, not to mention money for extra chores.

    6 months later, she still doesn’t have quite enough for her mouse (and cage and supplies), BUT, she also hasn’t spent hardly any money at all, and what she has spent, she spent on worthwhile items (dinner out with a friend’s family, a gift for her brother). I’m very proud of her, and I can see that she is really learning an important lesson.

  9. tom Says:

    As a 24 year old, I gotta say there is more parents needed like yourself.

    Last year i went out and bought a 5000K car on credit and I am still paying that debt off now, so it is not that enjoyable. I wish i learned basic money management before but I did learn my lesson now.

    But you should teach him now to think of “how can i afford it” with going into debt and also to plan ahead of terms of what it will cost him to keep the car.

  10. SJ Says:

    That was nicely done!

    I think #2 was great, and I agree completely with telling but not forcing your son to save. I’m prolly closer to his age group than yours and can say that it is infintely more useful to learn from the exp and need!

  11. Dan Says:

    I would add that you need constant feedback to let you know how you are doing. Negative feedback usually comes without any help from you in the form of late notices and overdraft charges. However, you need to have some sort of positive feedback system to let you and your children measure their progress.

    For the car, I think some kind of goal setting would be easy, such as earning and saving the $2,500 he needs to buy the thing. You can pay him, of course, but encourage him to work at other’s houses and yards to earn the needed money, and every month measure how far he’s come and how far he has yet to go. This kind of positive feedback can be a very good way to reinforce good habits.

    Maybe you can meet him partway, and tell him if he earns $1,500, you will donate the other $1,000?

  12. Diane Says:

    Great lesson for son #1, and the younger ones as well. 14 is pretty young to get a car anyway, although if it needs work it might take some time.

    My 17yo son now has $5200 saved from the last 4 summers of working in construction. This is his specific car savings, which is in addition to the money he put aside for spending money & outings through each year. It’s been a long wait, but we’re looking for his car now.

    Due to his school schedule, soccer (both Club Premier & Varsity), tutoring & now football, he doesn’t work during the year, only in the summer so far.

    Many of my son’s friends were given new cars/trucks when they turned 16 – a practice which horrifies me. Several have already wrecked them and gotten new ones… They do not have jobs, or pay insurance.

    My son would love a new car, but he’s said that he will appreciate his car and take better care of it because he’s worked for it.

  13. glblguy Says:

    Thanks everyone, I really appreciate the positive feedback. Being a parent, especially a good parent is tough!

  14. Kristy @ Master Your Card Says:

    I think you handled it admirably. I’m not a parent, so some of you may disagree with me here, but I think because you didn’t force him to save, he’s going to keep this lesson fully in mind. If you’d have forced him, sure, he’d be happy now, but he wouldn’t have learned this lesson. Thus, when he’s out on his own, the ever prevalent instant gratification would take over because dad isn’t there to remind him to save.

    I really wish I had been taught this lesson as a kid. I’m not a naturally frugal person and money certainly burns a hole in my pocket, so I have to work extra hard not to spend. It’s still tough, even after years of doing it. Learning young is the best way to go!

  15. Denise Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on this. My sixteen year old daughter had despretly wanted a car for two years but she hasnt saved up any money so far. All of her friend’s parents, even the poor ones, have gotten or financed cars for their kids when they got their driver’s liscenses. I have repeatedly told her that she needs to save up at least a third of the money for the car and the car insurance for years and she has always spent every penny. Now, due to a foot injury, she has been unable to work and find a job that she can physically do. This is a hard lesson for both of us but an important one. Even if I had the money, which I dont, I would not give it to her. It is good to see another parent try to instill those values in their children now instead of letting them skate by and pay for their mistakes as adults.

  16. Diane Says:

    Denise, it’s good to know I’m not alone here! I think your offer to your daughter to pay for part of her car & insurance is very generous.

    If I were able to do so, I would offer my son matching funds for his savings, but I’m not willing to use my savings at this point. I think financial stability is more important for the family now.

    Since he’s worked so hard the past 4 summers & saved his money I will pay at least 1/2 of his insurance for the 1st year, and possibly beyond if I can. He won’t be working as much this summer as he will have football practice every day and he really wants to play for his senior year.

    I’m amazed at how many parents will buy cars (freqently new ones!) for their kids, and then replace them when the kids have an accident. Sometimes I feel like the lone holdout.

    Some of these families can easily afford it, but I still think its wrong. Others I think are going into debt to provide vehicles and I really can’t understand that.

  17. MITBeta @ Don't Feed the Alligators Says:

    You may want to consider a lesson in buying on credit. Offer a very high interest rate, and charge late fees, etc., just like the credit companies do. Better that your kids learn it from you (presuming that they would get that money back somehow, perhaps in the form of college tuition, etc.), than from a credit card company…

    Something to think about?

  18. DDFD at Says:

    Great post– there are many adults who could learn from this one!

  19. No Debt Plan Says:

    Great lesson — and hey, sounds like it is starting to sink in with him if he is asking you to save it automatically. Good luck with that!

    And definitely buy the project car. That’s something I wanted to do with my Dad, but he said it was a waste of time and money. While those are true statements, it still makes me sad to think we missed out on those things.

  20. Clair Schwan of Frugal Living Freedom Says:

    You’ve handled this perfectly. He has seen his short-sightedness, and he is paying for it. It seems that now, he’ll be better prepared to sort out priorities, even in the want department.

    Buying the car for him would be a mistake, because this is a want, not a need. If he earns it and pays for it himself, then he has skin in the game.

    You might want to ask him if he’d like to buy a real car first, and then get the “project car” later. At 14, his answer should be no because he isn’t a real driver yet. That should also help reinforce that he’s wanting this and not needing it.


  21. BobV Says:

    I think you handled it in a terrific manner. I think one of the most important things we can do as parents is to teach our kids about money…. and when you do that, and they learn life’s lessons early on, they are a lot less likely to make the same mistakes we did…. and will be most likely to be teaching their kids as well.

  22. CathyG Says:

    I fully agree with your decisions, but I offer another option for the lesson about borrowing. What if you had him figure out on a spreadsheet exactly how much it would cost if he were to borrow for that car – paying off the loan/interest, plus buying all the parts needed to work on it. Then compare that to his current level of income each month. Then instead of just declaring that borrowing is a bad idea, use that data to DECIDE whether borrowing would be a good idea or a bad idea in this case.

    Like the commenter above who bought a car he couldn’t afford, this would help him learn how to make that decision.

    Money is useful as a tool as long as you know how to use it without getting yourself in trouble.

  23. tightwadfan Says:

    I think you’ve handled this perfectly. I especially like that you won’t let him borrow money for this car and I hope your family will back you up (grandparents can be softhearted). Since you mentioned that you have extra house-related expenses at the moment, I wouldn’t give your son matching funds toward the car if I were you. You need that money for yourself. (this is a good lesson in priorities).

  24. Jacque W Says:

    I APPLAUD your parenting!!!!!!!!!!!! I think you have handled this situation so well, you deserve a medal!
    The only thing that surprises me is that you are encouraging him to buy this car at driving age. It actually may take him the two more years until he graduates from high school to earn the money. So your good, there. Otherwise, I don’t like to see kids in high school strapped with the financial responsibility of buying gas, oil, tires, paying insurance, and any parts or inevitable repairs that the car would need. There are plenty of valid demands on their time: studying to be able to get into college or the tech school OF THEIR CHOICE & financial circumstances, volunteering so that they slowly become aware that the world doesn’t revolve around them, socializing with both sexes so that they develop social skills they will use all their lives, even family time (which sounds like you have a good handle on) so that they don’t become quite so lost in the adolescent vortex and remember they are also a valued family member, whatever the rest of the world sends them messages that they are or aren’t.
    That’s a lot to accomplish in the 4 short years of high school.
    Having said that, as you mentioned, the project of a car for you and your sons to work on IS family time. It also gives him something to do that is fun, limiting other fun but less satisfying and less self-esteem building activities like video games.
    It would also teach your children a hugely valuable skill, so that they are less dependent on an auto mechanic.
    It could even be a social avenue, because any teenage boy who has a mustang in his garage is going to have lots of friends dropping by to see how he’s doing with it.
    Sounds more and more like a good idea, actually, as long as you are still deeply involved; not necessarily in turning every lug bolt if he feels strongly about doing it mostly himself. But in just being Dad, loving him, laughing with him, there to answer the big life questions which sometimes are easier to ask when you are underneath a car than when one of you is plastered to the Tv or video game.

  25. Lou Says:

    Have you considered paying him interest? Bank interest right now is too low ro teach the effect of compound interest, but if you were to pay him 6% compounded monthly (ie, 1/2% a month on his bank balance), he would learn the positive magic of that compound interest which is in the saver’s favor. As an effective incentive, this has the benefits of letting you contribute in a way that carries more learning than a flat-sum contribution.

    Good luck – I wish my parents (who lived on cash, but were secretive about money – had taught me the virtue of saving as well as the virtue of work.

  26. Kenny Says:

    Delayed Gratification is the ONLY thing that Asian and East European cultures practice. This is how these folks can save 25% to 50% of their salaries.

    A lot of these migrants are living in the US and practicing those same rules. This means that some of your neighbors might be in this boat. If you see the cars they drive, but how well they live, it is an indication that they will belong to the “Millionaire Club”.

    Operating a life with ‘sacrifices’ seems hard for people who do not do it, but for people who practice it, they can call that method ‘Delayed Gratification’. All you are doing is to delay the purchase for a better one.

    I have 2 teenagers, and they have practiced this with me ALL of THIER LIVES, and seen that we will get 50% of what they asked for, but when the item came on a ‘deep sale’.

    For example they wanted a pair of jeans from Ambercrombie for $140 in Dec’08 and instead we got them 4 pairs of jeans and 4 sweat-shirts from Aeropostale for $40 when they had a sale in Jan’09. Now I remind them if they want to wait or Buy Now, and after having repeated this concept with them with 50 other things (all categories), they are convinced that America is going to stay a very unique place where Buying Now COSTS MORE.

    Hope this viewpoint helps……


  27. Shari Says:

    I agree completely with your philosophy and it’s not just kids who need the lesson… Our current economic crisis has been fueled by the “gottahavitnow” mentality and supported by the “approved, approved, approved” credit business model.

    Although I didn’t appreciate it then (any more than your son probably does now), my mother instilled in me the lesson of deferred gratification when I was about your son’s age. I wanted the “necessities” my friends had–particularly name-brand clothing. I remember my mom suggesting that I save up for new and/or start looking at garage sales for used items of the brands I wanted. I was appalled at the idea, but she left me no other options. I chose the latter…

    Years later as an adult, those lessons really hit home when I found myself swimming in debt I could not pay after a debilitating car accident that stole one paycheck from our middle-class Double Income No Kids (DINK) lifestyle. It was a painful reminder of the lessons in financial sanity I had been taught so long ago. It wasn’t easy, but with time, patience and diligence I managed to get out of debt without resorting to bankruptcy and I’ll never go back!

    I applaud your approach to finances and credit! One day your son will thank you and you’ll BOTH be that much more proud when he takes you for a cruise in his “Yep, it’s mine, all mine” Mustang!

  28. Jonathan@Friends and Money Says:

    Excellent example. Long term thinking is something that should be encouraged more by parents. Often it’s just too easy to give in, but actually by giving a consistent message can be much more effective. I also firmly believe that delayed gratification makes children appreciate things more.