Background In sub-Saharan Africa, there is growing interest in the use of cash transfer (CT) programs for HIV treatment and prevention. However, there is limited evidence of the consequences related to CT provision to adolescents in low-resourced urban settings. We explored the experiences of adolescents receiving CTs to assess the acceptability and unintended consequences of CT strategies in urban Johannesburg, South Africa. Methods We collected qualitative data during a pilot randomized controlled trial of three CT strategies (monthly payments unconditional vs. conditional on school attendance vs. a once-off payment conditional on a clinic visit) involving 120 adolescents aged 16-18 years old in the inner city of Johannesburg. Interviews were conducted in isiZulu, Sesotho or English with a sub-sample of 49 participants who adhered to study conditions, 6 months after receiving CT (280 ZAR/ 20 USD) and up to 12 months after the program had ended. Interviews were transcribed and translated by three fieldworkers. Codes were generated using an inductive approach; transcripts were initially coded based on emerging issues and subsequently coded deductively using Atlas.ti 7.4. Results CTs promoted a sense of independence and an adult social identity amongst recipients. CTs were used to purchase personal and household items; however, there were gender differences in spending and saving behaviours. Male participants' spending reflected their preoccupation with maintaining a public social status through which they asserted an image of the responsible adult. In contrast, female participants' expenditure reflected assumption of domestic responsibilities and independence from older men, with the latter highlighting CTs' potential to reduce transactional sexual partnerships. Cash benefits were short-lived, as adolescents reverted to previous behavior after the program's cessation. Conclusion CT programs offer adolescent males and females in low-income urban settings a sense of agency, which is vital for their transition to adulthood. However, gender differences in the expenditure of CTs and the effects of ending CT programs must be noted, as these may present potential unintended risks.