Teen Spending on the Rise

ByJohn Stossel

Dec. 12, 2003 -- Designer fashions are not just for celebrities and the red carpet — they're finding their way into classrooms and hallways as teenage girls seek out glamorous trends.

Watch John Stossel's full report Friday on 20/20

Adolescents have always had a thing for fashion, but now they're spending serious cash on clothing, jewelry and handbags from the "right" designers. These young ladies are interested in products from Tiffany, Coach, and Armani Exchange.

"Logos are everything," said Suzanne Zarilli, owner of Wishlist in Westport, Conn. "I get phone calls [asking] what came in this week."

The teens say designer labels contribute to their social ranking. "There's almost like this … boundary that you don't want to cross … because then you'll just be like, weird," Melanie Burg, a 13-year-old from suburban New York, said during a panel discussion 20/20 held with several teens and their moms.

One teen, Cheryse Pickens, explained the merits of a $200 bag which she called a "magic bag" for its mix of style and convenience.

"You have everything you need in there," said the 17-year-old from New Jersey. "I mean you don't need a huge bag. You just need the cute little … you know, don't overstuff it."

When asked why a less expensive bag, of the same size, would not do the job, she replied, "No, it's not the same."

Financing the Fashion

These mall-trotting teens carry credit cards, some using prepaid plastic that functions like a debit account. Last year young shoppers spent over $170 billion — double the amount just 10 years earlier. Many work for their money; others get it from parents. For parents on a budget, these fashion aspirations are a challenge.

"She sort of expects to just get [what she wants]. Get me and give me," said Ellen Burg, a fitness instructor who can't afford to satisfy all of her daughter Melanie's fashion indulgences. However, Melanie argues that she's not that demanding.

"I think today people are spending a lot more than me," she said.

The shoe collection of 16-year-old Nakeisha Williams of Hamptom Bays, N.Y., illustrates the point.

"I have over 20 pair of sneakers," said Nakeisha. "And boots, I have probably like 20 … If I could have a shoe for every day, I wouldn't repeat a pair of shoes once." Her dad disapproves of all the shopping, leaving her to sneak new fashions into the house when he's not around.

Several of the parents who spoke to 20/20 were critical of their materialistic kids. Cheryse's mom says her daughter's expectations are too deluxe. She recalls getting a beat-up car when she passed her driving test, while Cheryse wants a Land Rover.

All in Fun or Damaging to Self-Esteem?

As teens shop around for the latest fad they are picking up some shallow values.

"Some of the girls talked about how good they feel when they go shopping," said Harvard psychology professor Dan Kindlon. "The risk is that … they can be empty when they get older."

Nakeisha was among the teens to admit shopping makes them feel better when they're having a tough day.

This type of attitude concerned Kindlon, whose book, Too Much of a Good Thing, encourages parents to stress traditional values. "If they have only materialistic values, they're not going to respect things that are more important in life," said Kindlon.

He said parents should consider giving kids a fixed allowance, instead of handouts, to teach money management. Getting kids involved in charity work can also give them a better sense of values.

Cheryse shared her wealth with others by donating her old clothes to the Salvation Army. She says she can't afford to give the charity money, but, as she puts it, it's "'amazing' for a homeless person to have a chance to pick up a pair of Coach shoes.

Melanie's father took her to feed the homeless for a night, with good results. "I'm not going to go saying that, you know, I'm going to change my way of life now," said Melanie. "But feeding the homeless made me aware that — it's not all about the material things, there are other things that are more important in life."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events