When my friend Cassie was a senior in high school, she cashiered at a local supermarket. She earned enough money to go out with friends without asking her cash-strapped mom for a handout. A couple shifts a week ringing up groceries was a small price to pay for all that financial independence. But then someone at the store quit suddenly, and Cassie's manager assigned her extra shifts--right before the January 1 deadline for her college applications. She asked for a couple days off, but the boss said no, and Cassie couldn't find anyone to take her shifts (and didn't feel comfortable pressing the issue). Suddenly, she was in a quandary that could have a big impact on her future.
I think about Cassie whenever I hear people sing the praises of an after-school job for high school students. There's no denying the positives: "real-world" experience, a taste of responsibility, and pride in their newfound earning power--plus a little mall money doesn't hurt, either. I should know. I took on multiple gigs during high school--store clerk, waitress, catering server--and those jobs did me a lot of good.
But times have changed. Today's high schoolers are under so much more academic pressure than I was in the '80s. And with all the demands of work, it's far too easy for kids to lose sight of their most important job: school. That's why many parents have real misgivings about after-school jobs. Of course, I get that some families don't have the luxury of weighing whether a kid should have a job or not. But if your family isn't relying on the added income, here are a few things to consider before giving your teen the go-ahead to pin on that name tag and step behind the register.
First, the evidence in favor of kids taking part-time jobs: Working a few hours a week may actually be good for your kid's GPA. Research has found that, on average, kids who work in high school have slightly higher GPAs and test scores than their unemployed classmates--with one big caveat: They can't bag groceries or serve frozen yogurt for more than 15 hours a week. More than that and their schoolwork could suffer, and they'll be less likely to go to college. It makes sense: Kids who work reasonable hours are often go-getter types who also apply themselves in school.
But wait--that's not the whole story. Researchers at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Ohio University found that high school students spent an average of 49 fewer minutes doing homework on the days they worked part-time jobs. How much could that really hurt? Well, other research found that if kids put an extra half hour a night into math homework, they can boost their math grades by almost two levels--that's the difference between a C and an A. Connect the dots, and it's easy to see how spending too many hours working could hurt your kid's GPA.
So here's my advice. If your kid is already overwhelmed by the pile of homework he has, he shouldn't take on a part-time job during the school year. And homework isn't the only consideration. Your kid also needs time for extracurricular activities. An abundance of research has found that student athletes and jazz band members, for example, can get a host of benefits--from higher GPAs to healthier habits. Make sure these activities don't get short shrift if your kid works.
Even if your kid seems to have everything under control, and does get a job, it's up to you to check in frequently to make sure the homework is getting done. Kids don't have much experience with time management--or with pushing back against adults (unless that adult is you, asking them to clean their room). In their eagerness to please a manager, they may take on more hours than they should. Remember: Your kid's boss's first priority is to run a business. Your first priority is your kid's future.
So, it's no surprise that many parents are nixing paid jobs during the school year. Surveys find that fewer kids today even want a part-time job--perhaps because of all the other demands on their time. If your kid is dying to get one, tell her that summers are a better time to get those work hours in.
One last piece of advice: If your kid is drawing even a modest paycheck, make sure he puts some cash away for college. Really. This has two benefits: One, it puts a dent in what you're kicking in, and two, you might be saving your kid from the dreaded "premature affluence." That's what Jerald Bachman, a social science researcher at the University of Michigan, calls the sense of wealth teens can get from a sudden influx of cash. Here's how it works: Parents typically pay for the basics while their children are still in high school. When those kids start working, they might use their earnings to pay for extras--from designer clothes to pricey concert tickets to eating out. Before long, your teen can grow accustomed to a fancy lifestyle.
Fine, but what happens when he's out on his own, putting all his money into boring stuff like rent, utilities, and meals? The financial wakeup call can be harsh when he finds himself eating ramen and drinking tap water. Some kids may be tempted to go into debt to keep living high on the hog. Putting some of that high school paycheck in a college fund (opening a Roth IRA isn't as crazy as it sounds, either) instead of the cash register at the multiplex can help to your kid stay grounded.
As for Cassie? She came to her senses and realized it was crazy to risk her future for a job she'd be leaving in a few months anyway. She (politely) gave her boss notice, got those college applications in on time, and went on to earn a PhD. Today, the former cashier runs a successful biomedical startup. Cha-ching.
For more advice on talking to your kids about money, check out my new book Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You're Not).