smart spending

The high cost of high-tech teens

Ellen and her husband hit the roof when they got a $500 phone bill for their daughter's excess minutes and texting. "She had sent over 3,000 text messages and spent almost 12 hours on the cell phone," Ellen says. "My husband checked on the next bill, which we hadn't gotten yet, and it was even higher -- $600. We told her she was going to have to pay it off."

Matheson's and Ellen's girls are paying back their parents by baby-sitting and forking over birthday cash, but their families are footing the bills in the meantime. "Maybe I should take a second job," says a still steaming Ellen.

"Parents are doing ridiculous things to finance the status symbols of their children," says Marybeth Hicks, author of "Bringing Up Geeks."

You shouldn't have to take a second job to pay for your kids' phone bills, music and high-tech games. Here are some tips on holding the line.

1. Comparison shop

  Check price plans online before you go phone shopping, says Matheson, who found a better deal on the Internet after signing a contract at the carrier's bricks and mortar store.

Consider different service levels, options and charges for extra minutes and services. For example, Sprint offers a wide variety of voice, text, Web and other plans, says Sprint spokeswoman Emmy Anderson.

There are two schools of thought on texting. One is that kids are going to send hundreds, even thousands of text messages anyway, so you might as well get unlimited texting. But do you really want your child sending that many text messages?

"One relative of mine sent 6,000 text messages the first month she had a cell phone," Hicks says. "If you send that many text messages, you're spending way too much time texting."

After you choose a plan, you can also check online to find out what parental control features your carrier has. If your carrier isn't listed, options listed by the other carriers will at least give you topics for conversation.

"Carriers are offering tools to help parents encourage responsible cell phone use as well as protect kids from questionable content," says Shannon Nix, spokeswoman for CTIA-The Wireless Association.

2. Set expectations, then check up

  Phones are all about communication, so discuss your expectations about texting, minutes used, downloads and other issues with your child before handing over a phone.

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"Talk to the child before getting the phone about how you expect them to use the features, what you will or won't be allowing," Anderson says. "But sometimes that discussion comes after they get the first bill."

Then, check up on your child. "You can dial in and check, log in and check, or do it right on the phone itself," Anderson says. "If your child hasn't had a cell phone before, checking on how the phone is used is a very good idea."

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