Lesson Learned: How My Son Spent $1200 on iTunes

Friends, I’m a parent. It’s the position I’m most proud of. My wife feels the same way. We have two boys – a 14 year old and a 10 year old. They are the twin joys of our life together. In our quest to make the best parenting choices, I’d like to think we’ve done pretty well – most of the time. This story is about one of the times we messed up…pretty badly. But in the end, we turned our mistake into an opportunity to teach our oldest a valuable lesson. Buckle up…it’s going to be a bit bumpy at the outset.

Setting the Scene

It was July of 2014. We live in Western Pennsylvania and my wife’s parents live on the Eastern side of the state. Our boys were almost 300 miles away visiting their grandparents. This will be important later.

Now…my May American Express bill had been a bit high – it reflected about $300 in purchases from iTunes. My wife, who handles our finances, pointed this out and asked me to curtail my spending. I’m a conductor and music educator. I do tend to spend quite a bit on music through iTunes, particularly in the summer when I am planning my year – though $300 is pretty high for one month. I mistakenly just assumed I had somehow lost track and overspent. Not checking to see if I had actually splurged that much on music purchases was my FIRST MISTAKE.

I promised Jane I would avoid any further purchases for the rest of the summer.

We return to July and a child-free house. As much as we love our boys, we were enjoying a bit of quiet. I was working in the kitchen when I heard Jane yell for me in the family room.


Uh oh. “Yes?”

I could tell I probably did something.

“You spent over $850 on iTunes last month! You said you’d stop!”

At this point, I knew something was off. I knew I hadn’t spent any money on music in June. Refraining from any purchases through iTunes, I had spent a great deal of time listening to music on YouTube. What was going on?

We looked at the bill together – countless charges of $1.08…$5.44…then $10.89…then $21.79. Finally, toward the end of June, someone had charged several items costing $54.49. My bill with Apple totaled $878.

“In the interest of full disclosure, I was relieved that it wasn’t me who was in trouble.” – Dr. Boyle”


I immediately thought my card had been compromised, so I did what anyone would do – I called American Express. While on hold, I remembered – I had connected our oldest son’s iPod Touch to my American Express account.

We had a deal with him: if he wanted to download anything – anything at all – he had to ask permission. Whether an app was free or cost money, he had to ask. Nathan had been good about this deal. He always asked. He hadn’t abused this trust since we purchased the iPod Touch for him two years prior. I would occasionally check his device to see what he’d been doing. In two years I never found anything of concern and slowly reduced how often I checked in. MISTAKE NUMBER TWO.

Still on hold, I asked Jane to call Nathan, just to check if he had downloaded anything. The customer service agent returned and agreed that if I didn’t make the purchases, which due to their repetitive nature and increasing value, things did look suspicious. While discussing possibilities with my friendly Amex Rep, I heard Jane, in an extremely loud and uncharacteristic voice, say the following:


I sighed into the receiver. We had apparently caught the culprit – the mastermind behind the charges: our then 10 year-old son.

“Um…Ma’am?” I said sheepishly. “Never mind. We figured out what happened. Thanks for your help, though.”

I hung up.

In our 20 year marriage, I don’t think I have ever seen Jane as angry as she was that day, talking to our son on the phone (who I’m sure was extremely grateful of his 300-mile-safety-buffer). He admitted that he had been playing a game on his iPod – Clash of Clans –  that may have had some “in-app purchases.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I was relieved that it wasn’t me who was in trouble.

Freemium Games and In-App Purchases

This incident introduced us to the relatively new concept of Freemium Games, brilliantly satirized by South Park the following November in the episode, “Freemium Isn’t Free.” I’m sure most know what this is, but for the uninitiated, a Freemium Game is a game that is free to download. It’s also free to play. However, it’s been designed to take advantage of our desire to move quickly through a task to get that final reward. Yes, you can play for free, but for an in-app purchase of only 99¢, you can instantly buy resources instead of collecting them over the course of days or weeks. For for $1.99, you can buy quite a bit more. And for $9.99, you can buy even more! Why wait weeks to complete a task in-game when – for pennies – you can have instant gratification?

This bit of marketing magic works. It works really well, so well that Clash of Clan’s parent company, Supercell, normally takes in over $2 million each day. Let me type that again – the company brings in 7 figures a day for selling…nothing. In Clash of Clans you can purchase gems which simply speed up game play. There is no actual product delivered – digital or otherwise. Last year, Supercell generated $2.3 billion in revenue, selling the ability to increase the speed of gameplay.

The “Gems’ purchase screen of Clash of Clans – it’s only 99¢, right?

Parenting Fail into Parenting Win

So…I had failed to verify the purchases from May. As it turns out, all of that $300-plus iTunes bill was Nathan. He started small. As he played the game, he kept increasing the number of gems he was buying. A “Pocketful” of gems costs 99¢; a “Pile” – $4.99. With just a couple clicks, you can get your resources and speed up the play. Once he got going, absent parental supervision, human nature took over. There was no stopping him. He peaked at buying “Boxes” of gems for $49.99. We had caught on before he jumped to the next purchase level – $99.99…plus tax, of course.

Because we had failed to check in on Nathan’s iPod activity, we completely missed the install of the “Freemium” game and the initial purchases. We had to accept some responsibility. Of course, Nathan broke our deal and failed to ask permission to install the game and buy anything in the game. He had been so good in the past – asking if he could buy a $1.99 app or a 99¢ song. We never thought something like this would happen.

So what did we do?

At a friend’s suggestion, I immediately called Apple. I explained the situation to them, and without asking for a refund, they offered to refund the entire amount of $1189. Pretty amazing if you ask me.

But we still needed to deal with Nathan. Thankfully, his absence gave us time to think. We had some important and often complicated concepts we wanted to get across to our son. He had spent the equivalent of our rent on nothing of any real value. He had also abused our trust. What consequence (or set of consequences) would teach rather than simply punish? How could we use this opportunity to help him understand finances?

The Plan

Here’s what we came up with. Nathan immediately lost all his internet connected devices and internet privileges – iPod, Xbox, and computer access outside of school work. This falls into the “negative punishment” block of Operant Conditioning. What we did next required a long term commitment and would result in our son truly appreciating the value of money.

We told Nathan that we transferred the money in his savings account to our account to partially take care of his debt (we didn’t really). This lowered the total amount owed to about $800. We devised a complex life lesson for our son that, in the end, taught him more than just finances. We would teach him how to live on a budget and what that requires in everyday life.

  • Nathan would work five hours a week at minimum wage until the $800 was paid off.
  • Those five real hours would represent a virtual normal 40 hour work week – so each hour equated to an 8 hour day’s pay at minimum wage.
  • This gave him a virtual weekly salary of $290 a week.

Out of that weekly virtual salary, Nathan had to take care of the following weekly virtual expenses:

  • Roughly $40 in taxes and withholdings
  • $90 in rent – based on the low end of one bedroom apartment rent listings in our area
  • $15 in utilities
  • $30 in heath insurance
  • $10 in transportation costs (he’d take public transportation to his “virtual” job)
  • $40 in groceries

This left him with $65 a week. Out of this money, he had to pay down the entire debt of $1189. Each hour he worked beyond his five real hours represented a virtual hour’s work of overtime and he’d virtually be paid time and a half. To his credit, he did take advantage of this and did more than five hours of work almost every week – sometimes as much as 15 real hours total. What did we have him do?

  • Laundry
  • Cooking (taught him to make pasta sauce – a very important skill in my book)
  • Dishes
  • Vacuuming
  • Watching his little brother
  • Assisting both of us with various tasks

Each week, we sat down with him and entered his hours into a Google Sheets document I created, complete with formulas that figured everything out for us. He could see his income, taxes and other withholdings, expenses, and savings. We allowed him to decide how much to save each week, but encouraged him to save as much as he could. If we went out to see a movie as a family, he had to deduct the ticket cost from his savings (no, we didn’t actually make him pay for the ticket – we’re not monsters!). We set up a minimum payment on the debt, but he could elect to pay more. We also allowed him to buy back his electronics (at seriously reduced used prices), as if he had been required to pawn them.

One last monkey wrench – we laid him off one week and “outsourced” his “job” to his 7 year-old brother. He had to rely on his savings to meet his financial requirements that week. We explained that this happens sometimes and people still need to find a way to get by. That’s one of the reasons personal saving is so important – to deal with the unexpected.

In the End

When all was said and done, this learning experience took almost six months to play out. By the end of December, Nathan had paid off the $1189 dollar virtual debt from his virtual income, and finished with about $240 in his virtual savings account. He learned that living on a budget can be a challenging thing, especially at the outset. He learned that money is normally something one earns through hard work. He learned to value his time and the work he produced. We learned that we should never take anything for granted and be as present as we can be in the ever-growing list of digital parental tasks.

Trust me…we wanted to yell at him when he returned from Eastern Pennsylvania. He had spent almost $12oo! But the physical and temporal space afforded to us by the fact that Nathan was visiting his grandparents allowed us to cool down, realize our part in this fiasco, and come up with something that would deliver a serious consequence while attempting to teach him some very valuable life lessons.

Our 10 year-old handled all of this very well. As things got going, he would often be the one to initiate our time together filling out the Google Sheet. He’d point out how much he had saved and make pretty well informed financial decisions for a kid his age – like when it made sense to try and buy back his iPod or his Xbox privileges.

The Digital Parenting Landscape

In reality – we just have new and fascinating technological situations on which we must focus age-old parenting duties. Yes, Nathan was 10, a bit older than your average Kindermusik kid, but believe me, this can happen with any child that has access to an iPod, iPhone, or iPad. We quickly learned how to turn on parental controls for purchases, and as a second option, how to only allow gift cards for purchases on the App Store.

Huff Post recently reported on a 6 year-old girl in Dallas named Brooke who ordered a doll house and four pounds of cookies through the family’s Amazon Echo device. When no one was looking, she asked the internet connected device, “Alexa, can you play doll house with me and get me a doll house?” following the request with, “Alexa, I love you.” Because the girl’s mother had one-click ordering enabled, Amazon shipped a $170 doll house to the family home, much to Brooke’s delight.

As technology continues to deliver conveniences, as parents we need to be ever vigilant, both in monitoring and in educating our kids.

Our now 14 year-old son, Nathan, checks out the Kindermusik page...with typical teenage excitement.
Our now 14 year-old son, Nathan, checks out the Kindermusik page…with typical teenage excitement (he had to get dressed for this photo – he was lounging in his PJs).

Nathan, now a high school freshman, smiles when we recall that summer and subsequent months. He’s gotten very good at saving money. And really, it seems like just a week ago he was four, playing with Thomas the Tank engines on the living room floor. For those of you with young kids, 14 will be here before bedtime. So friends, be ready!


Apple has continued to develop controls for parents knowing that kids will be interfacing with the App Store and iTunes. Their Family Sharing controls are extremely useful and can be found here.

Likewise, Google has parental controls that are pretty robust. Information on how to adjust them are located here.

For the record, we did eventually tell Nathan that Apple refunded the money. We’re not that cruel – even if once in a blue moon he (and even his younger brother, Patrick) might give us a pretty serious eye roll.

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