“I don’t want to support the whole ‘buy stuff to buy stuff’ mentality,” says Talia, a high school senior from Charlottesville, Virginia, “but then I end up doing that because we’ve all been socialized into the culture of buying things as a social activity or to release stress.”
For years, marketers and corporate executives have been talking about the most effective ways to sell stuff to millennials, who will soon become the country’s largest generation. But now big brands are trying to decode the psyches of Talia’s cohort: Gen Z. Loosely defined as people born between the mid-’90s and the early 2010s, this generation has never known a world without the internet or smartphones. For them, social media is second nature. And according to marketing experts, that very much shapes how they buy things, even in real life.
As a millennial and a retail reporter, I’ve always found the near-anthropological discussions of my peers’ spending habits to be mildly hilarious and fairly condescending. Then I realized that my own understanding of how today’s teenagers shop was just a reduction of headline topics. They’re into Juul vapes? Fortnite upgrades? Supreme? Right, right, right.
So I talked to six high schoolers around the country about what they’re interested in buying right now and how they spend their money. Be warned: This is a series of snapshots, not a comprehensive survey. But some common threads did emerge over the course of our conversations.
Nearly every student I interviewed is into buying clothes at thrift stores, whether that’s because thrifting is cheap, because it helps you stand out from the crowd, or because it’s better for the environment. Some, like Talia, expressed deep wariness about capitalism and fast fashion, and enthusiasm for brands that prioritize diversity in their advertising. Pretty much everyone likes “retro” ’90s styles like mom jeans and scrunchies.
The way that teenagers shop now is totally different than before — brands and trends mostly gain steam over social media — and yet still very much the same. They make money babysitting or working jobs at the local mall, or they ask their parents to buy them things. They’re into clothes, makeup, and getting pizza with their friends.
Gen Z considers the brands they support to be a reflection of their values, and the products they buy a way of telling the world how they wish to be perceived. Teens: They’re just like us.
Nagely, 16, high school senior in New York City
What have you been shopping for recently?
Right now I’m spending my money on clothes and food. The school I go to is a fashion design high school, so I’m interested in shopping. If I want to look girly, I go to Forever 21, H&M, Gap. If I want to look more tomboy, I could still shop in those stores, but I could also go to a store like Urban Outfitters. Mind you, I prefer to find sales — I’m that person. Sales are the way. I’m a teen, I don’t have money!
I like to eat at Chipotle, and since I’m from New York and my school is in Manhattan, we have dollar pizza. It’s literally across the street from my school. I get a regular slice of cheese pizza, because that’s what the dollar pizza is. If you want toppings, that’s extra.
Since you go to a fashion high school, do students get more dressed up for class than at other schools?
The culture is to dress up when you want to. There’s no shame. I have friends at other schools who are like, “This isn’t a place to dress up. You’re going there for an education.”
There are people at my school who do grunge and preppy, but there are people that definitely dress up. They’ll wear ankle boots that are close to three or four inches high. I have a pair that I wear to school. They’re not the comfiest, but they’re cute.
What clothes are most popular at your school right now?
One style that’s trending is the ’90s look, the retro look. Everyone’s trying to wear mom jeans right now. People will be like, “Where did you get yours?” I tell them to go thrifting. You can get them for cheap. That’s my lane: cheap and cute!
The retro look is a major look, and so is the baddie look: skinny jeans, crop top, bodycon dresses. I’m giving you all the slang. It means you look like a bad bitch. You look really good.
What else is cool at your school?
Plaid pants. They’re coming back. You know the movie Clueless? That plaid. Before school started, I bought a pair of plaid pants that are navy and yellow. The plaid wasn’t as big as the Clueless print, and the pants were flare. I love flare pants.
I don’t personally wear makeup, but all my friends do. Right now people who wear makeup, they have to wear highlighter. That’s the thing. Highlighter on your nose, cheekbones, arch of your eyebrows, upper lip — that’s where you put it.
What makeup brands do people like?
People used to hate on E.L.F., but it’s honestly good. People are realizing that now. For a cheap brand it still has good things. On the more expensive side, people are loving Fenty. A lot of people in my school will use that because it’s by Rihanna. I feel like the quality could be equal to a Target product, but because it’s Rihanna, they’re like, “I love it!”
One Fenty thing that my friends love a lot is the Trophy Wife highlighter. It’s gold. At my school, since there’s no shame, people love to look extra. I can’t lie, I’m one of those people. If I’m feeling it, who cares?
I have curly hair and so do a lot of people I know. Something that’s trending if you’re a person of color is going natural, meaning keeping your hair curly. I straighten my hair, but every time you straighten your hair, you’re killing your curls. Going natural is a trend — I see it on social media a lot. It’s like self-love.
Do you shop with money from a job, or do you get money from your parents?
Sometimes my parents will give me money. Lately what I’ve been doing is tutoring a kid. It’s not like a job where I get a steady amount of money, because sometimes his mom will be like, “He doesn’t have homework.” He’s 9 or 10. I usually do it twice a week for $12.50 an hour, so $25 a week.
Talia, 18, high school senior in Charlottesville, Virginia
What kinds of things do you buy most frequently?
Today I went out to brunch with friends and bought some stationery. That’s what I spend most of my money on: food as a social thing and stationery, office supplies, and books. I have a thing for notebooks. Sometimes I use them for school, and a lot of times I think I’m going to start journaling, but then I don’t want to mess them up so I don’t.
It’s complicated because I really like buying notebooks that I don’t usually end up using! I don’t want to support the whole “buy stuff to buy stuff” mentality, but then I end up doing that because we’ve all been socialized into the culture of buying things as a social activity or to release stress.
When did you start thinking critically about consumer culture?
I took a sociology class last year in high school, and we talked a lot about capitalism and consumerism and we watched a documentary called The True Cost. It was about the clothing industry and about how workers in developing countries are exploited for fast fashion. I’ve been trying really hard not to support that kind of thing. I’m still definitely not there yet. My sister’s been trying to go zero waste, which is really cool, but it’s so hard unless you’re making everything at home.
This past spring I read the book We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler, and reading it definitely influenced a lot of my thoughts about consumerism and feminism in general. If you haven’t read it, I 100 percent recommend it.
She talks about how feminism as a movement has been commodified, and things like marketplace feminism — using feminism to sell products — and celebrity feminism, which is celebrities calling themselves feminists and immediately being seen as feminist icons but not necessarily being authorities. While I’m definitely still a feminist and supportive of most things feminist, I’ve become increasingly wary of products marketed as “feminist.”
So where do you buy clothing, if not at fast fashion stores?
Definitely Goodwill, but also I’ve been trying really hard not to shop for clothing because I do have a lot of clothes. I will admit that I bought some overalls from Old Navy. I had a coupon. If you have Old Navy Cash, you want to spend it.
Both of my parents are pretty crafty, so when I was younger my mom made all of my clothes. She doesn’t make the majority of them anymore, just a skirt or dress here and there. I feel like making clothes is a fun way to subvert capitalism while also being creative, so I sometimes sew things for myself. It’s also really fun to be able to wear something you’ve made. I use freezer paper — like wax paper but only waxy on one side — to make stencils for T-shirts. My two favorite things I’ve made are a romper and a pair of Converse I embroidered.
What products are really big at your school right now?
I’ve never Juuled, but a lot of people at my school do. Because it’s vaping, it’s less regulated than cigarettes, so it’s easier for kids to get. And it’s flavored, so it doesn’t taste the way a cigarette would taste. They’re technically illegal if you’re under 18.
People definitely use Juuls in the bathroom stalls at school. I feel like last year it was mostly freshmen and sophomores using them because upperclassmen were like, “That’s a freshman and sophomore thing. We’re too old for that.” I really don’t know why it’s a freshman and sophomore thing. Maybe it’s like, “We’re in high school now. I’m so mature.”
AJ, 17, high school senior in Newark, New Jersey
What are you spending your money on right now?
I usually spend it on clothes. That’s, to me, a necessity: clothes and shoes. If I have spare money, I’ll use it to go out with my girlfriend.
Where do you usually shop?
For clothes, I shop at a lot of urban-style stores, like Against All Odds. I usually get jerseys and jeans from there. I also go to Zumiez, Forever 21, H&M, PacSun. Online, I go to these little stores from the ads that pop up on Instagram.
For sneakers, I mainly go into side stores, like ones that are not mainstream. I like Vans and Nike — I just recently bought some Nikes. I can do Jordans for sure, and New Balance. When it comes to sneakers, it depends on how they look and the colorway. It doesn’t matter about the brand. Like recently I got some Sauconys — they were light pink on the back and the front was beige. I just loved it, because it was going to go great with my clothing.
Are there particular colors you’re into?
I mix it up, but I’m into bright colors. I have a pink hoodie and pink shirts — I like the way it looks. I tend to go for light colors, like all white, or summery, spring colors. That’s what helps you stand out. Black and gray are nice, but I prefer to stand out because I’m an energetic and loud person.
Do you have a job during the summer or school year, or do your parents give you money to go shopping?
I have a job part-time. I work at KicksUSA now. It’s like a Foot Locker. Before this, I was working at a Levi’s in the mall. My job is after school and on weekends. I play sports also. It’s hard to get free time, and when I have it, I try to enjoy it as much as possible.
When I go shopping, I usually just use the money I get from work. I have younger siblings, so my mom gives them an allowance. If I need anything, I’ll ask her.
What items do you see getting popular at your school?
The new Filas that came out. I personally wouldn’t wear them because I have big feet as it is.
Why do you think they got so popular?
One, because of the colors they come in. Two, because of social media. Three, because it’s just young people getting into them. The sneaker isn’t ugly, but it’s bulky. I wear a 12, so that’s not going to look great on me. Overall, it’s a nice sneaker. The material is nice, everything corresponds — and for us young people, if it’s on social media, that publicity gets out.
Gwyn, 15, high school sophomore in Boylston, Massachusetts
What’s cool at your school right now?
Birkenstocks — I got my first pair the summer of 2017. I didn’t really think they were cool at first, but then I started seeing them all over social media. A close friend got a pair and, after that, everyone got them. Everywhere in my Instagram feed, I would see famous people and regular people wearing them.
What’s the appeal of Birkenstocks?
I heard that they were really comfortable. They’re cute with a lot of outfits, and they’re fun to wear to the beach.
What else do you spend your money on?
Definitely just clothes. I like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle a lot, and I also shop at Urban Outfitters sometimes. Occasionally I’ll go to a mall, but usually I order stuff online. The mall near my house doesn’t have a lot of good stores, so it’s just more convenient to order them.
How do you pay when you’re shopping online?
I have the apps on my phone for the stores I like, and I have my mom set up an account with her credit card information. If I want to buy something, I’ll ask her if it’s okay. I have the Abercrombie, American Eagle, Urban Outfitters, Lilly Pulitzer, and Vineyard Vines apps.
Do you get that money from sources other than your mom?
Sometimes I babysit, but I don’t have a job yet. I’m thinking next summer I’ll probably get a job. I play sports, so it’s kind of difficult to work a job during the school year. I spend about $300 a month.
What inspires you to buy certain items?
I usually just look at what the people at my school are wearing, and if I think something’s cute I’ll go out and buy it. There are some instances where I see something on social media and get inspired by it. I mainly use Instagram — I have Snapchat, but Instagram is where I see most of that stuff. And sometimes on Vsco.
How do you use Vsco, as opposed to Instagram?
They have a lot of filters you can use and a lot of editing tools, and I feel like you’re more free to post whatever you want on Vsco. Not inappropriate stuff, but the stuff you don’t want to post on Instagram, you can post on Vsco. Usually on Instagram I’ll post pictures of myself with other people, but on Vsco I can post pictures of pretty things I see outdoors. People also post pictures of their outfits on Vsco, so that’s where I get a lot of inspiration.
Elisa, 16, high school junior in Chicago, Illinois
What products are big with your friends right now?
Glossier really got popular, particularly this spring when that no-makeup makeup look got popular. They have amazing products that focus on skincare, instead of focusing on the makeup portion of it. A lot of people started buying their lip gloss and then their Lidstar. Glossier is opening up a store on the North Side, so I’m going to go and pick up some more products, which I’m really excited about. I’ve had Boy Brow for three months, and it’s one of my favorite products. It’s the only thing I’ll use on my eyebrows now.
How did Glossier become popular?
I heard about Glossier on social media. I feel like it really represents the aesthetic of having great skin and an angelic aura around you. It’s pushing individuality and enhancing your own features without having to cake on a bunch of makeup. They do that through their models, who aren’t just women but also nonbinary and men. That’s something that I, along with a lot of my friends and peers, really admire, especially those of us who don’t get a lot of representation in the media.
Being Latinx and nonbinary and seeing Glossier’s products cater to others like me makes me want to purchase from them even more. They are inclusive, which expands their audience. Glossier always says “inspired by real life” and in real life, you can no longer only make products targeted for women because no reality is gendered. What the brand is doing is really admirable.
I noticed this spring that thrifting and wearing secondhand clothing became almost like a trend. Glossier and that look of developing your own style through someone else’s old clothing came hand-in-hand together. Glossier is about enhancing what you have, and that’s sort of what thrifting culture is all about. You can find pieces that really appeal to you instead of going into Forever 21.
Where do you get the money to go shopping?
Over the summer, I worked at Target while interning at the ACLU. I got a paycheck every three weeks, and put the majority in the bank and saved $20 or $15 of each paycheck for myself. That’s my spending and emergency money. During the school year, I don’t work or get an allowance; I ask for cash whenever I need it.
Aside from Glossier and thrifting, what else is trending at your school?
Bullet journals. People at my school like to focus on the importance of mental health. A lot of kids at my school are taking three or four APs at the same time, which is incredibly stressful. You’ll see people doodling and journaling during a free period.
A bullet journal is a plain journal, and you basically customize it to your life. I use it as a calendar to write down super important dates and birthdays. People use it for journaling and as a habit-tracker. That goes along with mental health awareness at my school — you’re finding what your bad habits are to change them, and maybe that will improve your mood.
Awareness of mental health at my school is coming from people getting extended time on their tests. A lot of people are getting extended time for severe anxiety. Or if they miss a lot of school because of depression or major anxiety, they’re making it known to the school and to their teachers, which I think is really brave of them to do.
Rishi, 16, high school junior in San Jose, California
What do you spend most of your money on?
I play tennis and run cross country, so most of my spending goes toward those two sports. I’m buying a lot of sneakers. I like buying clothes that allow me to play, so nylon fabrics and stuff like that. I’m one of those guys who spends money on athletic stuff rather than hypebeast stuff like Supreme.
What’s your sneaker brand of choice?
What products do you most see at school?
All those hypebeast items, like Supreme. Diamond Supply was in for a while. Off-White. I don’t find them particularly appealing because they’re quite plain — just one word on a shirt — but I guess it’s become a fad. I’ve heard from my friends at other schools about Juuls, but at our school the teachers are pretty strict about that.
Boba became a fad recently. There’s a boba shop within walking distance from our school, so that’s one place everyone goes, and there’s a shopping complex across the street with a Starbucks. We’re teenagers — we get hungry pretty easily.
What snacks and drinks do you buy?
Sports drinks, the ones with electrolytes. When it comes to food, I’m getting chips or something that my friends and I will share. In middle school everyone would get hot Cheetos. That was a thing back in the day. They don’t sell them at the vending machines in our high school.
Does shopping factor into your social life at all?
When we’re hanging out, the biggest thing we do is go eat somewhere, or go to a park, or someone’s home, or watch a movie. Maybe it’ll turn out that we get boba or some drink, but we don’t spend much time shopping.
How do you get money to shop?
I bought my Apple watch — so I can keep my fitness intact — by selling my old stuff. I sell my old tennis racquets that are in very good condition but I have no use for. When I have sports equipment in good condition, I can sell that off and get money. I don’t have an allowance because I prefer to just ask, “Can I have this?” when I want something. I find that much easier.
Where do you sell your stuff?
There’s some site that my mom knew — it’s called Nextdoor. I sold my robotics kit on there.