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How Mother and father Can Monitor Their Teen's Spending Habits and Why They Ought to

February 13, 2024
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How to monitor your college student’s mental health through their spending habits

Your teen is away at college, sometimes in the same city as home, often times in another state, and occasionally in another country. Regardless of whether they are 10 miles or 10,000 miles away, we worry just the same about their mental health.

Sure, they are over 18, and “technically” adults, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to communicate with them and advise from afar. Nobody knows them better than you, and even though they are growing and maturing, you are still the best one to discover any unusual or concerning behavior if you know where to look.

In my previous article on Grown and Flown, How to Teach Your Teen About Managing Money, I recommended opening a checking account and credit card for your teen, with you as the co-applicant. Assuming that they are still financially dependent, you can monitor their spending and see (in most cases) how they are actually using your hard earned money.

Many parents tell me they have no reason to distrust their straight ‘A’ student, and that they seem perfectly happy when they talk on the phone. But being away for the first time, especially with new freedoms, can bring out stress, anxiety, and even addictions that were not present before.

Living away from home can result in behavior not present in teens before. (Shutterstock Trzykropy)

Disclaimer: While there is a growing backlash to “helicopter parenting,” the following advice is designed to give you insights into concerning behaviors, and help you open critical lines of communication between you and your young adults. It is not intended to control every aspect of your teen’s life or prevent them from making small mistakes that they can learn from. While we may not want to admit it, young adults are struggling with mental health more than ever before.

4 ways parents can monitor a college student’s spending habits

What you should be looking for with spending, what it could mean, and what you should do if you find anything that seems inappropriate

1. Download the banking app you share with your teen onto your phone for easy viewing access to your student’s charges

I recommend reviewing charges weekly. Look for any excessive spending at places you don’t recognize, multiple purchases of food outside of their meal plan, purchases from liquor stores, gambling websites, and even charges at video game stores (for those of you whose teens are still into gaming).

When my son was a freshman, I began to see charges, first monthly, then weekly, then daily, to an online store I did not recognize. I quickly turned into a “private investigator,” and found out that he was purchasing liquid refills for a vape.

This was completely out of the ordinary, as my son never smoked before college. I immediately called him and discussed this new habit, and told him how strongly I disapproved. He insisted that it was just for fun, and that he was not doing it very often, but I had the charges to show him that his assessment was not correct.

I understand that college kids will experiment when away, and he promised that there was no nicotine involved, but I was concerned that this was more than just for fun. We fought about it for a few months, and thankfully, he ultimately quit. Showing him the progression of the frequency of his purchases actually helped him logically see his own negative actions.

2. Check the same banking app for cash withdrawals

While there is nothing particularly unusual about cash withdrawals, doing it too often could be a red flag. Most stores accept debit and credit cards, so cash is practically useless these days. Getting cash out of the ATM could indicate drug or alcohol purchases, or your teen could be giving away or loaning cash to friends in need.

While I am a big fan of teaching kids to be generous and to help others who occasionally need it, this can become a bad habit that they have trouble breaking. If you see multiple withdrawals, you can simply inquire about what it is needed for, and have a discussion about it.

Sometimes carrying cash around is unsafe in their neighborhood, so you can bring it up as a point of concern for their safety.

3. Download the Venmo app and peruse your college student’s account for unusual transactions between them and their friends

It is possible to keep transactions private, but from my experience, most kids keep their payments open for all to see. This app is mainly used to receive or make payments for purchases that are split among friends. I have noticed that college students particularly like to use Venmo for food, alcohol, and gambling.

Even if they are over 21, therefore making all those purchases perfectly legal, I am once again recommending you look for anything excessive. One of my son’s liked to use Venmo to settle up poker wins and losses. While there was nothing scandalous about this, I did have a casual conversation with him to get a feel for how often he was playing and how much he was betting.

I strongly believe that it is much easier and wiser to get a handle on anything that feels out of balance with your child while it is in the early stages, rather than waiting until there is a serious problem on your hands.

4. Have occasional open and honest dialogue with your college student about how they are feeling and functioning in college, whether you see unusual charges or not

Past experience with my three college boys has shown that if I noticed a period of extreme stress due to social situations, difficult classes, midterms, or projects due, excessive spending usually followed. It is not unusual for anyone to turn to food, shopping, or games during stressful times, but there are more appropriate ways to handle the stress.

I recommend suggesting that they exercise, go for a walk around campus, meditate for 10 minutes (the Calm app is great) or just hang out with friends for a short get together. You can always encourage them to speak to a college therapist who can offer a different perspective to help them deal with stress. With a little observation and open communication, you may be able to help your child learn critical, life long, positive habits that they will thank you for later.

More Great Reading:

Dr. Lisa Damour: How to Help Your Teen Say ‘No’ to Risky Behavior

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