08/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Frugal Teens: What They Can Teach Us About Recession Style

After last week's post, I've decided to take a little break from lightening-rod topics, at least for a minute. You'll get my follow up the burning Gossip Girl question next week, when all the votes on this controversy are in from my buzzSpotters.

Meanwhile, here's something that will make financially stressed parents of teenagers across the nation shriek with joy: yes, your teens actually DO care that there is a recession going on. And they are finding ways to curb their spending that could teach a few of us more extravagant adults a thing or two about budgeting with style. They're turning to thrift shops, finding bargains in Target and Forever 21, and, if there's a luxury item they just can't live without, they're trolling the Internet for the best possible deals, and waiting for the price to drop until it falls within a budget they've set for themselves.

Retailers who are marketing to teens and counting on their spending habits being recession proof had better think twice. What was true in the last recession, after the IT bubble burst, is not true today. According to recent research by retail analyst Piper Jaffray, total teen spending on fashion is down 20% compared with last year. When they do spend, it's on less expensive brands, like American Eagle and Hollister. This is in stark contrast to a similar survey in 2002, also by Piper Jaffray, which found that teen spending overall was up 23% compared to the previous year, with kids going for higher end name brands like Tommy Hilfiger.

This isn't necessarily true for 'tweens, who tend to rule mom and dad's credit card. But kids in their later teen years, who are responsible for finding their own part-time and summer jobs, are getting more and more frugal as they head into college. According to that same Piper Jaffray report, they don't have a lot of choice. Their parents are also spending less on their older kids, cutting back on fashion spending by more than 40%, to $883 compared with $1,487 a year.

You could argue that this as something to do with the severity of this recession. It's not abstract. This time around, people are losing their homes. Parents are struggling to pay for their kids' college tuition, but with what? Tuition fees have gone through the roof, the credit crunch is making it next to impossible to obtain student loans at reasonable interest rates, and today's savvy teens are well aware of this.

Now more than ever, young people are so plugged in to what's happening around them, they can't help but care. If they do a search for music on AOL, the first thing they see is the news on the site's home page, and they are actually pausing to read the economic headlines. If their parents still have their jobs and aren't going into foreclosure, teens have at least one friend in school whose family is affected by the economic turmoil.

My buzzSpotters talk about the student loan situation all the time. They've also been bumping up against a brutal job market this summer. Knowing that college loan money isn't guaranteed anymore, they're looking for part-time work after school and after their summer day jobs. Many are even having trouble finding work, as 20-somethings and college grads grab the jobs at Gap and Starbucks.

It's got to be rough. But here's the good news: Instead of giving up, hanging around the house and playing victim, today's youth are going online and finding ways to network and start their own businesses. I know one buzzSpotter who started a home improvement business with his friend that undercuts the competition by miles. For $500, he painted a customer's brand new condo. And his company name is totally fitting: Affordable Improvements. In fact, I was so impressed I just hired him to do some landscaping for a fraction of what professional landscapers charge, and he did an amazing job.

I know of other teens who are branching out and offering their services as personal assistants to wealthy families in the neighborhood. They're handling the babysitting, grocery shopping and whatever other errands need to be done. They're finding needs in the marketplace and filling them, and they're marketing themselves through Facebook and Craigslist. Because they've worked so hard for their cash and gone into business for themselves, these "teenpreneurs" are dealing with the idea of budgets for the first time in their lives, and they're being smart about it.

I have to confess, these young people are adapting to the new economic realities a lot faster than my generation. I'm not letting the cost of gas affect how much I drive, even though I probably should. Sure, I may not spend thousands on the latest Prada bag. I try to curb my spending habits as much as the next person, but the concessions that me and my friends make are small.

No doubt there are still spoiled teens burning through their parents' credit cards, but overall these kids seem to care about so much more than the designer clothes on their backs. They're interested in politics, ending the war in Iraq and doing as much as they can to reduce their carbon footprints and end global warming. They're embarrassed by conspicuous consumption and flashy labels. They're so fabulous and hip that they're setting their own economizing trends, mixing a two-dollar tee shirt with store bought threads and creating unique looks.

Admittedly, none of this thrifty chic among teens is earth shattering news. But in a small way it gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, this generation will do a better job of managing their costs under the weight of the multi-billion dollar deficit that Washington has dumped in their laps. Maybe they're the ones who will be able to fix this mess.

Tina Wells, 28, founded Buzz Marketing Group ( when she was just 16. A leading consulting company that specializes in the latest youth trends, Buzz clients include St. Martin's Press, SonyBMG, Sesame Workshop and Time Inc., to name a few. A trailblazer in her field, her list of honors include Essence Magazine's 40 Under 40 Award, Billboard's 30 Under 30 Award, and AOL's Black Voices Female Entrepreneur's Award.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.