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 cellphone. For “Ellen,” who is too embarrassed to use her real name, it was back-to-back cellphone bills totaling $1,100 for her teen daughter.
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. New and upgraded phones, tablets and iPods seem to come out monthly, but phones are the main expense: Teens, tweens and younger kids want cellphones and smartphones to talk to and text their friends and to keep up with social media.
“It’s about being cool — having that cellphone so you can whip it out,” says Claudine Jalajas, adding that there’s no way her 10-year-old son is getting a cellphone 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 cellphones.”
Keeping up with the “iJoneses”
The use of technology by teens is only growing. A Pew Research study last year found that not only has the use of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter increased from 2012 to 2013, but teens are spending more time on them and sharing more personal information.
The result for parents is that they often feel ambushed by high bills with charges for hundreds of minutes, thousands of texts and Internet options they didn’t even know existed. Keeping up with the Joneses’ 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 and costly headaches
The cost of an iPhone alone can set parents back $200 or more. Tablets are even more, but it’s the monthly plans for talk, text and data that can run up a fortune in a hurry. And then there are the extra purchases, such as various apps or downloads from iTunes, which often catch parents by surprise when it comes time to pay the bill.
But beyond the monetary costs of various devices is the question of who should be paying for their use.
Both Matheson’s and Ellen’s girls are paying back their parents for their excessive phone use 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 brick-and-mortar store.
Consider different service levels, options and charges for extra minutes and data plans from a variety of carriers, including Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
When it comes to the costs of plans with unlimited texting, there are two schools of thought. 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 cellphone,” Hicks says. “If you send that many text messages, you’re spending way too much time texting.”
Parents can control costs and restrict their teens’ tech addictions through various parental control options. For example, Apple’s website instructs parents on how to install controls on phones, iPads and iPods.
2. Set expectations, then check up
Beyond costs of technology, parents also want their children to understand the responsibility that goes along with ownership. Discuss expectations about texting, minutes used, downloads and other issues with your child before handing over a phone.
“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,” says Emmy Anderson, communication manager at Sprint. “But sometimes that discussion comes after they get the first bill.”
Then, check up on your child. Depending on how much you want to know, a variety of apps from carriers and third parties can be installed on smartphones to let parents see what their children are doing or block certain behaviors. “If your child hasn’t had a cellphone before, checking on how the phone is used is a very good idea,” says Anderson.
3. Determine an age limit
Set an age or school grade for when your child can get a cellphone. Every year you delay means more money in your pocket. In Hicks’ family, each child gets a cellphone the summer before freshman year in high school. “I don’t want a cellphone that lands in my wash,” she says. “That’s where a sixth-grader’s cellphone goes.”
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 cellphone 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 cellphone 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 much less. 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.
There are numerous sites that offer used games, including Amazon and GameStop.
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 cellphone, 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.”