By Jean Park, 16, Harvard-Westlake School (North Hollywood)
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Jean feels good knowing she has money saved in the bank.

When I got a job the summer before my sophomore year, my plan was to spend the money I earned on my 16th birthday party. I’ve always heard that your sweet 16 is supposed to be the most special, so I was so excited about it.

I wasn’t the kind of person who had birthday parties. My parents usually baked me a cake and we celebrated at home. After sixth grade, my only birthday party was a dinner with a few friends in eighth grade, so I wanted my 16th birthday to be the one I’d always remember. I wanted a colorful party—the walls would be painted bright colors and there would be a disco ball reflecting circles of light around the room; the cake would have tons of rainbow sprinkles with all kinds of frosting. I wanted a DJ and lots of candy. I knew that my parents wouldn’t want to spend lots of money because they think I’m too old for a big birthday party, so I really wanted a job so I could save up money for my party.

When I told my parents I wanted a job, they told me I should be more focused on studying rather than working, but they didn’t say no. I wanted to show them that I wasn’t going to ask for money, but was going to earn it.

One of my friends told me that I needed a work permit since I was only 15. I asked my school dean for one during the last month of school and got it signed by him and my parents. In July, I looked up information on websites that help teenagers find jobs, like the best places to ask for a first job. The websites recommended small cafés, a fast-food joint or working as a busboy. I wasn’t expecting a glamorous first job, so I wasn’t discouraged when I found out that my best chances of getting a job were food-related. I read all the interview questions just in case I’d be asked on the spot and picked a weekend that I was free to walk around Glendale and ask about job openings.

I walked down Colorado Boulevard and walked into City Café, a small family-owned coffee shop. I asked if they were hiring, but the woman at the register said that they didn’t hire minors. Then I walked into the Coffee Bean next door and they said they weren’t hiring. I looked for signs that said “Help Wanted” and when I walked down further, there was a “Now Hiring” sign at a KFC. I wanted to make KFC my back-up choice because I really wanted to work at a café, which felt more relaxing and cozy because of the comfy chairs and cushioned stools. But it was already late in the afternoon so I walked into KFC and asked for an application and the manager came out to greet me.

He handed me an application and said that they “didn’t usually do this,” but since it was only a summer job, he would let me apply even though I wasn’t 16. I didn’t want to sound too excited in front of him, but I had a huge smile on my face.

I went back home and I showed my parents the application, but they weren’t as excited as I was because they didn’t want me to have a job. The application asked for my personal information, like my address, social security number and contact information, and work/volunteer experience. I wrote in pencil just in case I made a mistake and went over it in pen.

I hoped they’d hire me

I came back the next day and when I handed in the application, the manager asked if I could stay for about half an hour. We talked about the work he wanted to me do. He said I would be like a janitor, but that was fine with me because I was so excited about actually getting a job. He wanted me to work three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for four hours each day. We went to the storage room and I got a KFC employee shirt in my size. He said “See you Wednesday,” and I couldn’t believe I was actually going to get paid a real salary, which was $8.15 an hour.

I slept in my new shirt the day before my first day of work because wearing the uniform made me feel older and professional. I got up two hours before I started at 8 in the morning to make sure I was on time.
I had to wash the windows, sweep, clean up the trays after people were done eating, and clean the tables and soda machine area if drinks were spilled. I checked in with another employee every now and then to see if they had any extra work for me to do. Things were pretty easy.

After a couple of days, I was asked to clean the bathrooms every day, which I hated. I only had to do the women’s restroom, but I had to mop the floors and make sure there were no paper towels or toilet paper on the floor. The manager had Oust, which is spray that kills bad odor. I used about half a bottle in one day because the bathrooms were so smelly.

Most of my work was cleaning up after people, but I loved it when people said “thank you.” When I go to a restaurant, I either don’t see the busboy because we leave before he gets to our table or we only thank the waiter. I felt really good when people thanked me because it meant that I was doing my job well.

After a couple weeks, I found quicker and smarter ways to do things. For washing the windows, I put towels at the bottom of the windowsill so that the water wouldn’t spill on the tables or floors, but would soak into the towel. When I finished early, I learned more about the kitchen, like how they cook the chicken and make their potato wedges.

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I got around $90 for every paycheck, but my parents explained to me that taxes took away about 10 to 20 percent, so each week I got around $75. I saved almost all of it, except when I went to a couple movies.

Looking for the perfect dress

When I had free time, I’d walk to the mall and look at the dresses in each store to see if there was one like the dress I had in mind. I wanted a strapless dress with the bottom like a tutu.

I saved up around $490 by the end of the summer. I felt really good about the money I had earned and I thought about saving the money instead of blowing it all at once for my birthday. I thought a birthday party wasn’t worth all the hours I worked and the number of times I had to clean the bathrooms.

My sophomore year was like a rollercoaster because there was unnecessary drama from friends, more work from school, and stress from my parents and teachers. When I had a tough day, I usually convinced myself that I would spend all my money on my birthday. Just thinking about all my friends there and the music made me feel better. My friends had lots of parties that year, since it was their 16th birthdays. There were dressy dance parties with DJs, chocolate fountains, bowls of candy, cupcakes, and even napkins with the birthday girl’s name on them. My friends and I would dance and pig out. I know I’ll never forget what everything looked like and how much fun I had. It sometimes felt like I was celebrating my own birthday.

Because of that, I decided not to spend my money for my 16th birthday in March. Instead, I had a small dinner, which my grandparents paid for, at Castaway with my family and a few close friends. I don’t regret it at all. My best friend Rachel was there and everyone laughed the whole dinner. There was an outdoor patio and Rachel and I went outside after dinner and talked for two hours, partially because we wanted our food to digest before dessert. We talked about guys, of course, and our summer plans after our senior year. Then we went back inside, where everyone else was talking, and ordered the best molten chocolate cake that everyone shared. My mom said that she’d only cheat on her diet on my birthday because she knows how much I love sweets.

I was still deciding what to do with my money, so later I talked to my friends and they helped me decide to save what I’d earned and maybe dip into it only for college or emergencies. They told me that if they had money that they worked for, they would definitely save it.
This summer I wanted another job because I liked the feeling of earning money. It made me feel grown up because the other workers trusted me and rarely treated me like a kid. I walked down to the Ralphs three blocks from my house, and asked the manager what my chances were of getting a job. He said that he might have an opening, but I’d have to apply online first.

They pay around $8.55 an hour. I’m so glad that I was able to get a job because of the economy. I started off as a “cleaning technician,” which I later found out was a janitor. I am also going to start bagging groceries when some of the college students go back to school. I want to work during 11th grade just on the weekends. My parents still don’t want me to work, especially during school since I’ll be extra busy, but they say, “We’ll see,” and I hope I can handle having a job during the school year.

I plan to spend some but save a lot

I want to save money from this job maybe to help pay for college, but I also want to spend a little shopping for clothes I need or eating at a restaurant with my friends, but not splurging on things I don’t really need. It’s easier for me than my friends to save because I don’t go shopping a lot. When I do go shopping, I have a hard time because I think that everything is overpriced. I love the clothes at Urban Outfitters, but there are tank tops for up to $50 so I look for clothes on sale. But to keep from even spending a dollar, I tell myself I want to save a certain amount before I spend some of it. Right now, my goal is $650 and I have around $570.

My parents have always told me that they give up a lot for my brother and me and now I realize that they can’t keep most of what they earn at work because it goes to pay for school tuition, house payments, taxes, gas and house bills. From working and talking to my parents, I’ve learned that money is valuable, not just because you can buy things with it, but because money keeps me in school and puts food on our table.

I feel good knowing that I have money saved in the bank and it’s increasing. I know I won’t spend it because I don’t keep the money in my wallet. It’s like when you’re on a diet; you won’t be tempted to eat sweets if they aren’t in your refrigerator or cabinets. I’m glad that I’m learning to be responsible with my money. Although money isn’t the most important thing in the world, it is valuable and saving it has benefits.

It all adds up. Our teens kept track of what they bought for a week.

Money Q&A. An expert from Bank of America talks about the smartest strategies for how to save money and why it’s important.

Other stories by this writer:

Finally proud to be Korean. After years of jokes, a holiday that celebrates strength showed Jean, 15, a positive side to her culture. (March – April 2009)