A few weeks ago, I saw my oldest son in a tuxedo for the first time. He's at the age where he's having a milestone every few weeks, it seems, each one involving a new and surprising expense.
He needed the tux for his first prom, even though he has a perfectly good suit we bought for this year's winter formal, a black suit that fits him much better and is far more stylish than the baggy gray tux he wore to the dance.
When my husband and son came home from ordering the tux, I asked them how much it had cost.
"Ninety dollars," my husband answered.
Well, I thought, that's about $40 more than I thought it'd be, but since I'd never rented a tux before, I was willing to admit that my calculations might have been a little off.
"When can we pick it up?" I asked.
"Thursday," he answered. "You can pay the other $90 then."
I was glad that my son, who was preoccupied with an astonishingly large salami sandwich, did not see me blanch.
Fourteen years ago, I thought nothing could be pricier than the toddler stage, with its diapers, child care and co-pays for ear infection antibiotics. But it seems those early years were only a warm-up for $40 Pac-Sun T-shirts, $90 test fees and iPhones.
Lately, cash seems to disappear in my 16-year-old's hands faster than beer at a frat party. My son is neither self-indulgent nor extravagant, but we're having a lot of conversations these days that begin with, "Can I have money for ... ?"
I was ready for our insurance and gasoline bill to increase when he started driving. And I knew, in all fairness, that his extracurricular costs and fees for PSATs as well as other tests would add up. But I was unprepared for other things, like a photography company having the temerity to charge $80 for one of its prom packages. It took my breath away.
"Maybe you could use your iPhone to take a picture and text it to us instead," I suggested.
"Sure, Mom," my son answered. But I could hear the disappointment in his voice, and I felt a slight twinge of guilt -- the twinge that is the lifeblood of yearbook and photography companies across the nation. I opted instead for the $30 package, which includes 20 wallet-size pictures that will end up scattered in a kitchen drawer.
The weekend of prom was also the weekend my youngest son had his 13th birthday party, another milestone in our family. Soon, I thought as I watched him blow out his candles, this one will be costing us a lot more money, too.
Already, he yearns for $90 Nikes. For his birthday, he wanted specialty socks, the latest fad, at $14 a pair.
"Fourteen," I said. "I could buy you a whole package for $9."
"But these are padded, Mom," he explained. "They're athletic socks."
He has already picked out the car he wants, despite clear evidence that he instead will inherit our 1999 one-ton dually with the rusty hood and bent fenders -- the vehicle his brother currently drives to school.
"I'd be happy with a '69 Dodge Charger," he mentions one day.
This is the same child who once told me that since we could not afford a new BMW, we should just use a credit card to buy one.
Perhaps the real problem with my sons becoming more expensive to maintain is not that they need more money from me, but that I would like to indulge their every desire.
I suspect it is a good thing that I cannot. After all, Americans are just now recovering from a giddy spending spree that almost drove our entire nation to bankruptcy. I hope my children's generation will avoid a similar fate.
That's why I won't feel too bad when, three years from now, I will stand at the window and watch my youngest son drive off to school, the dually's unpainted fenders more noticeable in the bright morning light.
Well, I will think to myself, it's not a '69 Dodge Charger, but if he really wants one, he can buy it for himself someday.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.