Girls vs. Boys: The Great Money Divide

STEVE: “Are girls different from boys?” I asked Levi the other night.

He slowly turned toward me from his Facebook screen, arching his eyebrows and flashing a smirk that said: Wow, Dad is even more clueless than I thought. “About money,” I quickly added. “How are teenage girls different from boys about money?”

“Oh,” he mumbled, less cocky now. He thought for a minute: “I don’t know.” Truth is, neither of us does, which is why we’ve avoided the topic in this column. We’re a family with three boys; what do we know about girls?

Boy issues seem simple to me. Girls seem, well, complicated.

For example, here’s a mental image from dropping Levi off at his first middle-school dance. The boys were schlumping around in jeans and T-shirts that appeared to have come off their bedroom-floor piles. The girls were from a different planet: They strutted sharply in spaghetti-strapped dresses, jewelry and designer shoes, clearly having spent hours on hair and makeup. Man, it looks expensive to have a teenage girl, I thought.

I realize that generalizing about gender differences is a minefield. So we decided to start by asking people who at least have some sense of what they’re talking about: the girls themselves.

LEVI: When I talked to some girls about money, it seemed at least some of their issues weren’t much different from mine. “The arguments I have with my parents include having more privacy, getting my own laptop computer, and making me do less chores,” says one of my friends. Sounds familiar to me.

Still, when it comes to money, there do seem to be some pretty fundamental differences. Most of my friends who are girls spend more money than my guy friends do. But they also earn more money. For example, one friend takes pictures for people, and another friend does extra chores around the house for money.

On the other hand, none of my guy friends have jobs.

Some girls described other ways that they’re different from their brothers. “My brother likes to save and spend it all at once, usually for a game system,” one girl said. But she said she does more chores and makes more money — and then spends it more freely on frequent shopping sprees.

The boys and girls I talked to also fell into stereotypical roles when it came to what they buy. When my guy friends talk about what they’d like to buy, they usually mention the newest videogame or a new air soft gun, a type of BB gun. All the girls I talked to said they use their money to buy clothes.

As one girl told me: “I, like many other girls my age, spend most of my money on clothes or accessories.” Most of my guy friends don’t care about clothes as long as they are reasonable.

STEVE: When I talked to parents of teen girls, it was pretty clear that there is no single stereotype that fits. Some parents tell me their daughters are frugal, while others talk of spendthrifts. Some daughters work for their money, while others would rather chill. Girls, like boys, beg for cellphones but then don’t promptly pick up when Mom’s calling. They want their own computers, argue about allowances and ask for extra cash so they can eat out with their friends. They neglect to put gas in the family car — just like most of the boys I’ve known.

Safety is a bigger money issue for many parents of girls. After I wrote that our boys drive my dumpy ’92 Saab, parents emailed saying they felt they needed to provide their girls with cars that were less likely to break down on a dark street. When Isaac wrote of working the late shift at the tea shop, parents wrote saying they could never let their girls do that. “I’m much more concerned about safety with her than with him,” a mother with two teens told me.

The biggest difference? Here’s what one mother, a reader, wrote after I asked her: “Oh my, girls are such high maintenance! There are just more THINGS to buy. Hair products and hair coloring and cuts; nail products; perfume; undergarments — bras, panties, camisoles, tights and slips; shoes, and more shoes — boots, sneakers, black sandals, white sandals, tall heels, flats, wedges, pumps; purses, many of them in every color and shape; and jewelry — earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings. Clothes and more clothes…. Girls are never happy wearing the same thing over and over like guys do. Skirts and dresses, slacks and blouses, cardigans and blazers…it just goes on and on.”

That sounded extreme, so I consulted an editor with sons and daughters. “No question about it,” he said. “My son never wanted much of anything. But my daughters constantly needed new clothes. And not just any clothes from Target. They all want designer clothes.”

LEVI: After talking to my friends, I concluded that while boys and girls may be similar in some respects, there is a major dividing issue: clothes and videogames. Girls buy the first, boys the second.

One of my teachers once said to the class: “Boys are addicted to fire and girls are addicted to shoes.” She was talking in reference to two books — “Lord of the Flies” and “The House on Mango Street” — that involve boys playing with fire and girls talking about shoes. But maybe she has a point.

Steve Yoder is chief of The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau. His son Isaac is 18 years old and a freshman in college. His son Levi is 14 years old and a freshman in high school.