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Gasoline prices are putting the brakes on summer fun

Students feel the pressure of having to work to keep the tank filled

July 31, 2008|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer
  • Noah Lewkow, center, is a 24-year-old senior at Cal Poly Pomona who faces an 80-mile round-trip commute from Santa Monica. To help cover his gasoline bill, he puts at least 40 hours a week as an assistant manager at ZJ Boarding House, in charge of buying skateboards and apparel for the skate and surf shop. In his off time, Lewkow gives private skateboarding lessons.
Noah Lewkow, center, is a 24-year-old senior at Cal Poly Pomona who faces… (Benjamin Reed / Los Angeles…)

This may be one summer when students can't wait to get back to school, just to be reminded that they aren't adults yet.

Across the U.S., the gasoline price crunch has forced more students to look for work and put in serious hours, griping about how little they earn. More teens have been carrying credit cards, but without much joy because the plastic has been devoted to covering their fuelishness. Some college students have shifted into a new worry gear: how to pay for the gas on top of the books.

And if all that weren't bad enough, some of the most important rites of the season -- family outings, trips to the beach and just hanging out with friends -- have been sacrificed to the budget gods.

Gasoline has become the No. 1 credit card purchase for teens, according to a small sampling of young people conducted by Junior Achievement. In fact, gas knocked apparel out of the top spot for the first time in the nine years that Junior Achievement has been asking about teen spending habits.

"Gasoline is really taking a bite out of what these kids are making," said Stephanie Bell, director of marketing and media relations for Junior Achievement, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They are going to have to go on a budget just like the rest of us, and that's a painful lesson to learn."

Although gasoline prices have been easing, they remain substantially higher than they were at this time last year. On Wednesday, a gallon of self-serve regular gas sold for an average of $3.93 nationwide, compared with $2.89 a year earlier, according to the American Automobile Assn. In California, the average pump price was $4.29, compared with $3.07 a year earlier.

For the five-member McGinn family of Castaic, this has been the summer of fun rationing.

In the olden days of last summer, the whole family would have climbed into the big Ford Expedition and driven up to see Davis McGinn, 13, play the left mid position in an American Youth Soccer Organization game recently held in Santa Barbara.

Not this time.

Father Fred drove Davis to the game in a small pickup truck, and the rest of the family stayed home.

"My mom couldn't see how much I've improved. That bothered me," said Davis, who said he hoped gas prices would fall soon "so parents can enjoy going out more with their kids."

The first clue for the McGinn children that this would be an unusual summer came on Memorial Day weekend. A big soccer tournament had been scheduled in San Diego, something that the family ordinarily would have looked forward to attending.

But not with the real estate bust and economic downturn hammering Fred McGinn, a self-employed flooring contractor, and other parents. Not with Nikole McGinn forced back to the workplace for the first time in 13 years, handling the front desk at a sports club. The soccer-team parents decided to pull the team from the tournament.

"Back in the day, we used to go to tournaments like that and turn them into mini family vacations, maybe go to Sea World, go to the beach, stay in a hotel. So we all just voted no, because it wasn't going to be anything like that," Nikole McGinn said.

Some teens who are old enough to drive and hold a job have found that high gas prices have turned the sense of newfound freedom into a burden.

Keaton, the McGinns' oldest child at age 16 and newly able to drive, rolls in a 1999 Mitsubishi Montero his parents bought for him last year, before the latest surge in gas prices. The West Branch High School student works the cash register at the Cartoon Candy Kitchen at Magic Mountain.

"Every week I get a paycheck, and a little more than half of it goes to gas. It's pretty awful. I can't spend things on other stuff or save money. It's not very fun," Keaton said.

Earlier in the year, Keaton said, he had his summer planned out, driving to the beach every week with friends, seeing the biggest movies. But the reality, with gas so expensive, has been far different.

"Now we are not going to the beach at all because no one can afford the gas," Keaton said, adding that he hoped a new job or a promotion would come along soon.

"I need more money," he said.

Another 16-year-old from Castaic, Cory Evans, had been looking forward to the time in January when she would be able to get her license, but the anticipation has become much more stressful than fun.

"I haven't really thought of a job yet, but I am in desperate need of one. I'll have to help pay for the car. Mom said she will match the money I raise for the car, but the insurance and the gas will be all on my own. I'm worried I won't be able to afford the gas. It's kind of a pain," Cory said.

Older students aren't finding it any easier. Noah Lewkow, 24, a senior at Cal Poly Pomona, faces an 80-mile round-trip commute from Santa Monica in a 2000 Chevy Blazer that gets 16 miles per gallon on the freeway "on a good day."

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