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Do you owe your teen a car?

Some parents seem to think that driver's license = additional vehicle. Should it?

By Donna_Freedman Nov 6, 2012 12:03PM
Logo: Convertible (Carlos S.Pereyra, Pixtal, age)The anonymous author of the Squirrelers personal finance blog recently cautioned readers against spoiling teenagers with expensive automobiles. Having a luxury car, he said, could initiate a lifelong love affair with pricey rides.

"An old car is perfectly fine, as long as it’s safe.  It doesn't need to be cool, it doesn't need to look good.  All it needs to do is be safe, reliable, and get a kid from Point A to Point B," wrote the blogger, a father of two.

"I have no idea what the parents who are buying these kids expensive cars are thinking."

One commenter suggested that parents were buying their children's love. Another warned that getting too much too soon might kill a teen's motivation. A third suggested that youths be given "modest" cars, lest they develop a sense of entitlement.

Allow me to play devil's advocate: Why buy your kid any kind of car?

Oh, I know all the usual reasons: extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, sports teams, parents with long commutes and/or non-flexible schedules who can't get their teens from place to place easily.

But should that inevitably lead to a third car in the household? I've heard parents say stuff like, "She's such a good kid/works so hard in school/does so many things. We figure she's earned it."

Wrong. Driving is a privilege, not a right. Your kid should earn that privilege on a gradual basis, not be given the keys to a new car upon passing the driver's test.

To buy or not to buy?

You'd be looking at a car payment or cash outlay for a used auto right when the focus should be on saving for college or trade school. Talk to your insurance agent about the cost of insuring a third vehicle. Estimate the weekly price of gasoline and any expected repairs.

Add all this up. Sit down and fan yourself.

Next: Look for other solutions. Carpooling with friends? Public transit? Paying a friend or relative to pick up and drop off your teen?

Or, maybe, biting the bullet and rearranging your schedule a bit. Perhaps you and your spouse can take turns driving, or set up carpools of your own. Inconvenient, yes, but relatively short term. Driving three kids home once or twice a week might actually be easier than driving one kid five times a week.
If your kid really does need wheels, they shouldn't be trendy or spendy ones. Let him drive one of the family's current vehicles; if a new car is to be purchased, it should go to Mom or Dad.

Keep in mind, though, that a kid with his own car is usually somewhere else, whereas a parent's vehicle has restrictions. Many teens would be happy to use home as just a place to sleep and shower, but no 17-year-old needs that kind of freedom.

Working to feed the car
I'm all for high-schoolers working part time as long as it doesn't interfere with grades. But once your kid has a car, he runs the risk of taking on extra hours to pay his share of auto expenses. Teens shouldn't work so much that their education or health suffers.

If your kid is employed, he should chip in for gas and/or insurance. Yes, that will nibble away at his meager earnings. Welcome to adulthood.

Or try this: You'll pay the car costs as long as your kid saves at least 75% of his paycheck. That's the deal I swung with my daughter; I drove her or let her use my car to get to work after school and on weekends. (Hint: This is something you need to bring up when they're still too young to drive -- and it needs to be an ultimatum, not a topic for debate.)

Do your kid a favor: Don't make things too easy. Getting everything he wants right from the start could lead to some tough adjustments later in life. Unless, of course, you plan to be around forever to help him pay for things he can't afford.

It won't kill Junior to drive his mom's Subaru to the dance. And if he feels it will? He could always walk, or take the bus. Or stay home.

Were you given a car as a teen? Do you plan to give your kid one?

More on MSN Money:
Nov 6, 2012 3:59PM
I started working at the age of 14, cleaning a elementary school for 3 hours a day after school. I purchaced my own car before the age of 16. It only cost 1000, but I paid for it on my own. It was a 75 datsun 280z. Everything I have I have worked hard to achieve. No I dont think parents should give their 16 year old a car. Having worked hard for my car, working a job, I feel more responsible, took care of my car and realized things dont come free, you have to work hard.
Nov 6, 2012 3:55PM
The only way I would owe my teen a car is if they purchased one and I wrecked or lost it. 
Nov 6, 2012 1:39PM
I wasn't given anything as a child.  I had to get a job and pay for things on my own.  If you give children everything that they want in life then they end up having a problem and thinking that everything needs to be handed to them even within a career.  Make your child work for that car that they will be driving and just because everyone on the MTV show "Sweet 16" gets a brand new car does NOT mean your child has to as well.  Children need to learn to live on their own and be independent.
Nov 6, 2012 12:51PM

My father worked for the auto industry as an engineer his entire life.  Cars were a way of life where we grew up.  He had an old Miata in the garage and he used to tell me it would be mine when I got my license.  I initially was very young and didn’t care but we used to work on it from time to time and I enjoyed helping him and learning how it worked.  I got to help him with basic maintenance and keep it in both good looking and running shape.  When I was about 12 years old, he threw down a boat cushion on the seat and forced me to start driving him around the subdivision.  I was absolutely terrified but I listened to my father’s advice.  He would take me out into the neighborhood and teach me how to drive it and operate the manual transmission.  As I got more competent we would drive through other neighborhoods and take short drives in the rural countryside early on Saturday mornings.  By the time I got my license I was a capable, safe, and a confident driver that he knew would be smart out there on the roads.  When I passed my driver’s test, the car was mine, along with it, its host of idiosyncrasies, but I had a car.  I learned more from that car because I felt I had earned it and I am thankful I had a father that pushed me. I think he knew teaching me himself would allow him to keep his sanity when I was able to drive legally and would be out on my own.  He said to me years after, that he wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t see it in me (that I could handle learning at such a young age) but I’m glad he did.  So no you don’t owe your teen a car but you can use a vehicle as a life lesson, as a carrot to dangle out there.  You can teach kids a lot more than just how to drive but how to be responsible, successful, self-sufficient and safe.  You can’t put a price on a good lesson that your kids will never forget, and more than likely pass down to their kids.  Again, I didn’t have a new car and would never buy my kids a brand new car.  That’s just frivolous.   So now that I am older, I have a 2000 Camaro SS in the garage that one day will get called into action for the same purposes. 

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.