These days, kids as young as toddler-age are grabbing our cell phones to play games, watch movies or listen to music.
And as soon as that starts happening, the “Mom, I want one!” pleading starts happening as well.
Before adding another expense to your family’s budget, you’ll need to think about whether your child is ready for the responsibility of owning a cell phone, and how you (or she) should handle the expense of purchasing one and paying the monthly bills. Here are the benchmarks to keep in mind …
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Maturity Matters, Not Age
According to a Pew Internet survey, most kids are between 12- and 13-years-old when they get their first phone (though they note that numbers may trend younger as cell phones become increasingly ubiquitous). But Anne Collier, co-director at ConnectSafely, a non-profit organization, suggests not focusing on age, because it’s not about how old a child is, but whether he has the maturity to handle a cell phone. As a parent, only you know if your child is going to use her phone constantly to text with friends instead of doing homework, or if she’s likely to get distracted and drop the phone in a swimming pool or lose it on the bus instead of taking good care of it.
Involve Your Child in the Discussion
If your child asks for a phone, sit down together as a family before proceeding, advises Collier. Say, “I would love for you to have a phone so I can be in touch, but let’s talk about whether or not you are ready.” Ask your child what she wants to use the phone for, how she plans to manage her time so she gets enough sleep and gets her homework done, and explain to her what your rules are for when it’s appropriate for her to use the phone, and for what purposes. You should explain what phones cost—both to buy the device and the monthly service charge, so she understands the financial implications.
Teach That Cell Phones Are a Privilege, Not a Right
Even if everyone else has one, owning a cell phone is not a right, and your child shouldn’t take this expensive device for granted, says Stephany Kirkpatrick, CFP®, LearnVest’s Director of Financial Planning. The first step is having your kid at least partially help pay for the phone, or earn it, instead of having an expensive, cool new gadget just handed to him. Work with him to make a plan for how he can save up to contribute a certain amount toward the phone, whether by using allowance and birthday money, getting a job or “earning” it by doing extra chores.
You may want to ask him to chip in a certain amount each month toward his plan, too. You’ll be teaching him that if he wants something, he is entitled to work toward getting it, but that things won’t just be dropped in his lap.
Start With the Basics
If you wouldn’t give your kid $200 to carry around in her pocket, why would you give her an expensive, top of the line smartphone? asks Kirkpatrick. Instead, start her off with a basic phone that is just for conversation, and not for texting. Or, if you choose to give her your old phone when you upgrade, look into parental controls (like these from Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile) that carriers offer so you can block internet access, set when a child can send or receive calls or texts, set up GPS tracking and much more.
Note: The carriers do charge fees for many of these options, so factor that in when you do your budgeting.
Take a Trial Run
If you aren’t entirely sure your child is ready to handle having his own phone, consider a trial period. If your kid’s grades drop, or he’s skimping on sleep or sending texts all day and night, it’s within your right as a parent to take the phone away. You may want to look into prepaid phones for this before locking into a longer-term contract.
If by some crazy twist of fate yours is the only kid in town not begging for a phone, but you’d like him to carry one if he’s traveling, or out with friends without an adult, try a pay-as-you-go basic phone that the entire household can use (T-Mobile’s pay-as-you-go options start at 10¢ per minute for calls). Keep it fully charged, and hand it to him if he’s going somewhere where you’d like him to have a phone. That way, he can hand it back over when he comes home and not be worried about paying for a monthly cell phone bill.