smart spending

The high cost of high-tech teens

For Diane Matheson, the financial breaking point of keeping her teen in technology was the $360 her daughter spent to download music and horoscopes onto her cell phone. For "Ellen," who is too embarrassed to use her real name, it was back-to-back cell phone bills totaling $1,100 for her teen daughter's text messages and excess minutes.

"Parents are doing ridiculous things to finance the status symbols of their children."

Back when today's parents struggled to join the "in crowd," being cool meant wearing the right clothes and sneakers, having an extension phone in your room and listening to the right music on eight-track or cassette tapes.

For this generation of teens and tweens, the cost of being cool and connected has soared. Cell phones are the main expense: Teens, tweens and younger kids want cell phones to talk to and text their friends.

"It's about being cool -- having that cell phone so you can whip it out," says Claudine Jalajas, adding there's no way her 10-year-old son is getting a cell phone anytime soon, despite his constant pleas. "When we were kids, we saw adults with cigarettes in their hands and we thought that made you look cool. Now it's cell phones."

Have phone, will text

At one time, kids without cell phones were on the other side of a digital divide, based on a 2002 study by Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore. "Now, the real dividing line is whether you're texting or not texting," says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing director of Context.

Parents end up feeling ambushed by high cell phone bills with charges for hundreds of minutes, thousands of texts, and other options they didn't even know existed. Keeping up with the Jones' cool kids has never been so costly.

"Apparently it is very expensive to have access to the Web," Matheson says wryly. "That wasn't explained to me. My daughter downloaded four songs and those four songs cost me $280. I was really upset. I canceled the service right away."


Unlimited headaches

The next company's plan offered Matheson's teen 200 minutes and unlimited texting for $39.99 a month. But then a bill came for texting a five-digit code to get horoscopes, another $80 in charges.

"I didn't realize getting a cell phone was going to be so complex," Matheson says. "I didn't realize what was really involved. You'd think the phone companies would tell you these things." Unfortunately, you have to know to ask about opt-out options.

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