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Paving a Growth Path Thanks to a Pair of Pants

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A couple of weeks ago, a 14-year-old girl walked into the store to buy yoga pants. She tried on a couple of pairs. Found one she loved. And with her mother, grandmother and two younger siblings trailing behind her -- picture Harry Potter's Weasley family, bundled up, shopping together -- she purposefully made her way to the register. Neither parent nor grandparent made any strides (literally) to approach with payment. I said the full amount due out loud; Mom and Grandma didn't budge; They stood with folded arms, shifting their body weight from left to right, talking to the younger siblings. Before my awkward-moment-panic set in, I saw the 14-year-old girl, who did look just like Ginny Weasley, reach for the small, rectangular purse, reminiscent of all our first real purses, slung across her body. She was paying for her own pants. She gingerly handed over $20 bill after $20 bill after$20 bill. She told me this was all babysitting money. I told her that was awesome. "She really wanted those pants," her mom said, standing behind her daughter now. I realized then that Mom was her ride there. Ginny Weasley wasn't old enough to drive.

The same thing happened again last week. Different pair of pants. Different teenage girl. Clad in skinny jeans and oversized sweaters, chewing gum with braces and tapping nails with chipped off polish on mobile devices, three teenage girlfriends shopped together. I had them all figured out. Until it was time to pay, and one of the girls shifted her messenger bag to the front of her body and yanked out her wallet. She talked to her friends as she unloaded $20 bill after $20 bill after $20 bill. She said she had to babysit her brother "a million times" to save enough money to buy those pants for herself. She rolled her eyes, got over it in 3.4 seconds, and then told me just how excited she was to get these pants.

If you're one of those girls, I respect you. Because watching young women hand over their hard-earned money for something they want for themselves -- whatever that is -- is cool to see. Because how you spend your money is your choice. And it's cool to see you make that choice for yourself.

It's cool on two levels. First, whether you appreciate it now or not, you're learning something about money that not everyone your age respects. If my 14-year-old self heard me say that, she would roll her eyes. But, it's true. And you probably would rather not have to pay for those pants for yourself. I get it. I get it because I babysat my butt off to save money for a boom box I wanted. Yep. I said it. Boom box. Those were my yoga pants in the long, arduous, Frodo-struggling-up-Mount-Doom journey that is being teenage girl. I'm pretty sure I didn't always enjoy entertaining someone else's kids with that Mousetrap game or brewing a blue box of macaroni and cheese. But I sure as hell liked knowing I earned that cash. And, fifteen years later, that boom box still lives; it sits in my parents' garage. And it still means a lot. The same way those pants will mean a lot. You just made a bold move to save enough money to buy something for yourself. And, without realizing it, you just raised your own gold standard. And with this new gold standard, comes two scary questions -- what's next, and what else do you want for yourself?

There is something going on here with these two young women and others just like them. Do they use their own money to buy what they want because we -- the rest of us, their parents,
the economy -- expect more from them? Or do they pay for what they want because they want more for themselves?

Granted, at the end of the day, I'm 99 percent sure they're buying the luxuries they want because their parents told them that if they wanted it, they'd have to save and pay for it themselves. And that's okay. Because here's the magic: That's exactly what they did.

It's a big deal to hand over your own money. Especially when it takes a while to earn. And especially when your friends aren't necessarily handing it over for the same thing. I feel like that's a decision parents make, and I'm not a parent yet, so I don't know how to parent that situation. But I've been that 14-year-old girl saving her money. And now I'm 29, and I've made that car payment and that apartment payment, and I ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank almond milk for a week because I bought those polka dot jeans from Anthropologie before I should have. And now I'm in business school. I knew what I needed to do to get where I want to be. And I will pay for it myself.

At the second level of cool, there's a piece here about economics that I appreciate. These two young women trumped my expectations for their behavior as consumers. I thought I had them all figured out. I'm not going to lie; I thought Mom and Dad would pay. But here were two young women who earned their own money, saved their own money, and contributed their own money to something bigger than themselves. At 14 years old, they're just as much a part of this business cycle; this competitive, open market. They grew up in families that held it together through the recession, they've watched their parents start spending again, and now they're out-and-about operating under these unofficial consumer spending rules of the game with their own money. And their dollars matter. Their choices matter. Because they're keeping all this money moving just as much as any of us try to keep all this money moving with the idea we're contributing to something bigger.

This kind of spending isn't about anything life or death. It's not about food costs. It's not about energy costs. And we're not talking pockets full of hundreds. We're talking maybe $100 total. They don't have perfect information, watch CNBC after school, or refresh stock market tickers. They're just doing what they do: shopping at the mall with their girlfriends, laughing and tapping away at their mobile devices. And spending their own money.

A lot of this doesn't make sense when you're 14. We were talking and laughing about first jobs, and my friend, Nicole, who is 30, was reminiscing about her first after-school job at a local ice cream shop outside of Cleveland. "I just liked having my own money," she said.

That's what this all about -- having something that is our own. And if that's the case, every young woman who operates like this is an entrepreneur for herself. And that's a good place from which to start. I didn't think much about how Ginny Weasley spent her money. Until I realized she didn't have to do that. She will be a smarter woman 15 years from now because she decided to babysit just one more time to make just 20 more bucks. I think that's a pretty strategic, growth path before you even know how to drive.