smart spending

The high cost of high-tech teens

3. Determine an age limit

  Set an age or school grade for when your child can get a cell phone. At $20 a month, that's an extra $240 in your savings account every year that you delay. In Hicks' family, each child gets a cell phone the summer before freshman year in high school. "I don't want a cell phone that lands in my wash," she says. "That's where a sixth-grader's cell phone goes."

Blinkoff advocates waiting as long as possible. "There's no need for the kids to have the things they have at the ages they have them," he says.

Limit usage by paying in advance. "Get a pay-as-you-go phone, not one that is on anybody's family plan," says a wiser Ellen. "Once you run out of those minutes, they're gone. I don't think kids today see things as being 'gone.' They think, 'we can go buy some more. We can get unlimited.' That's sending the wrong message, that everything is free."

4. Make them pay

  Clear up that "everything is free" idea and be frank about costs. "My kids used to say, 'but the cell phone is free,'" Hicks says. "They were truly surprised that I had to sign a contract and pay every month. We can't put our kids in a bubble and have them not know about the costs of things."

Have your child foot the bills for any extras, whether cell phone minutes or games or designer clothes. For some reason, $20 of a child's own money is worth more than $20 out of mom's or dad's wallet.

"Allowance really does help," Jalajas says. "I'll say, 'That will cost 20 weeks of allowance.' My policy is: I'm your mother and I will provide you with everything you need: food, clothes, a home. Anything above and beyond that, which includes video games, you'll pay for yourself."

5. Buy pre-loved items

  Jalajas' son, who used to insist on all new books and games, now realizes he can buy a used computer game for $10 or the same game, new, for $35. The Mathesons also shop for used games for their Nintendo Wii, often trading in old ones for credit. "It's a rarity we'll buy a brand-new game," she says.

A friend in deed

Friends can make a difference in encouraging or curbing materialism. One of Jalajas' son's friends is an only child with a nice bedroom, a cell phone, an iPod, a big-screen TV in the basement and more. "He comes home and says, 'how come I have to share a room with my brother?'" Jalajas says.

But a new friend has made Jalajas' son more appreciative of what he has. "He came home and said, 'Do you know he has to share a room with his three sisters?'" she says. "We need more of those friends."

Karen Haywood Queen is a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va.

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