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OMG! Teens Are Not Spending!

You know the economy's still rotten when the sales clerks at Aeropostale are smiling at you, the Mom or Dad.

Not long ago, a parent was persona non grata at stores like this. You could practically feel the force field at the entrance to Hollister. But the decline in teen spending is so alarming retailers, reports the Wall Street Journal, that Aeropostale, for one, is training sales staff to TTM -- Target the Mom (WSJ subscription required). She's the one with the wallet. You've got to get her to open it.

The mallmeisters have to hope that Friday's report on consumer confidence -- or surprising lack thereof--won't be repeated. Presumably, if companies start to hire and 401 (k)s gain, teens will resume their superconsumer behavior. Figures from 2008 show that parents were still spending on kids, even as they cut back elsewhere.

But there are plenty of parents (at least those I know, observe, and eavesdrop on) who seem to be in resistance training and are developing some long-unused muscles. Even parents who hadn't said "no" to their all-consuming kids in recent memory are rediscovering that all-purpose line, "We can't afford it.''

It's a good comeback whatever the plea. Chinese tonight? One more Transformer? The new iTouch? Just utter the magic words. It can even give the contemporary parent a "Greatest Generation" glow: Yes, children. We're going through some hard times. But we'll pull through.

As a single mother on a perpetually tight budget, I'm taking some pleasure in this trend. It helps to have other parents sounding the same skinflint note.

Still, caveat anti-emptor. Sometimes "we can't afford it'' can be a crutch. The affordability question may be cover for more complicated issues. After all, every spending decision is a matter of tradeoffs. Maybe you could dig up $128.99 for a new Dregs Death Stick skateboard, but you want him to know he can survive 5th grade on his old Plan B. Maybe you could divert enough of the budget to send her to the pro camp with the heated Olympic-size pools. But you think maybe a few weeks swimming in a muddy creek and singing campfire songs would give her new friends who know how to have low-tech fun.

Every time you play the empty-pockets card, you're avoiding a conversation about messier stuff: values, priorities, delayed gratification, the divine rights of the breadwinner (to order takeout when they want it).

Of course, avoiding such conversations is exactly the point. Who wants another argument? Especially when you were up at 3 a.m. worrying about what you couldn't afford.

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