Selecting the Best Cell Phone Plan for your Child

Kids and Cell Phones Part ll – Selecting the Best Cell Phone Plan

Last time in What is the Right Age to Give Your Child a Cell Phone? we tried answering the “when” question of kids and cell phones.   This week we’ll assume the answer to that question is “now”, and tackle some of the mechanical details that come right after that decision.

Phone Types

Cell phones have evolved well beyond basic communication in just a few years, so it’s possible to get one that can do just about anything you can imagine.  And that’s precisely why parental judgment becomes critical.   I see kids with Blackberries and iPhones, but my feeling is that they shouldn’t have them on two counts:

  1. Unless they’re contributing to the cost of the phone, they’ll treat it like a toy, not like the high technology that it is, and
  2. Kids are already distracted enough, they don’t need the complete entertainment that premium units can bring

Folding Cell PhoneComplicating the phone choice with older kids are social factors.  We touched on this a bit last time, but once you make the decision to get a cell phone for your child it becomes even more influential.

We may be thinking of cell phones mainly in terms of basic one-to-one communication between us and our children, but our kids have many more uses for them.  There’s texting, taking pictures, videos and the plethora of potential connections to the world wide web.  And every one of these have some sort of social capital in a child’s world.

The point of bringing this up isn’t to encourage you to become a hostage to teen social trends, but rather to be aware that they exist and will play a part in the type of phone you buy for your child.

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The best advice is to go for a low end unit for a young child (ten or younger) and a mid-priced one for a teen.  Phones can cost hundreds of dollars each, but most providers will charge a minimal price for certain models that are attached to plan packages which will include periodic replacement at similar low prices.  These are worth taking not only to save money up front, but also because it will enable you to trade up as the child grows.

Plan Features

This is where cell phones for kids can get complicated—and expensive!  Buying the phone itself is a one time transaction, but plans are ongoing.  And they have a full menu of options that can burn a big hole in your wallet.

Prepaid minutes

Prepaid plans with limited minutes can work well with young children, and may even help to train them in proper cell phone usage.  As they get older, it will become necessary to shift over to more generous monthly plans that will add flexibility.  The problem with prepaid plans is that as you add features, the cost mounts to the point that there’s no price advantage over a family plan with fewer limits.

Texting features

Texting may be a game with kids, but it’s also a valuable cost control technique.  The more they text, the less they talk, and the fewer minutes you need.  Best advice: get unlimited texting. We made the mistake of going with 250 messages per child when we first added texting, and had what I call a Billing Catastrophe. That’s where you select a plan, thinking you did the right thing, then the bill arrives the next month and you realize you didn’t.

When we went with 250 texts per month, we were thinking that was plenty—for us—but it’s about a days’ worth to a kid. Major mistake!  By adding $10 per month per child for unlimited, not only did we eliminate text related billing problems, but the call minutes dropped as well.  Bite the bullet and add this feature, you’ll be glad you did.

Internet access

This one is a certified you-don’t-need-it feature.  If we’re concerned about what they’re doing on the internet on a home computer, we should be downright worried about what happens when they’re out in the world and beyond our supervision.  In addition, if you have internet access at home, having it on your child’s cell phone is paying for duplicate service.

Games and music

You’re children will love you if you allow them open access to these—but you’re budget will shudder under the strain of what it will cost.  There’s a charge for each download, ranging from 99 cents to $9.99, and that’s just for the upfront charge.  Some have recurring monthly charges.  Another problem is outright deception.  A pitch will advertise “free download” and a kid will go for it.  A month later you get hit with recurring charges.  You don’t need this feature either.

Replacement insurance

You’ll want to have this on your kids phones.  My wife and I have never had to make a claim for ourselves, but we’ve had to do it a couple of times each for the kids over the years.  It might be cheaper to pass on the coverage and bank the money instead, but when you have the coverage the phone is replaced within 24 hours after just one phone call.  We’ve even had this happen when we were out of town and it worked beautifully.

Customer service

Never ignore customer service when you’re adding your children to your plan.  Remember those Billing Catastrophe’s I mentioned?  If you’re getting cell service for your children, you’ll need to be prepared for them.  Customer service can be either your best friend or your worst enemy when it happens.  We use Verizon, and while they aren’t the lowest cost provider, they’re money in the bank when something goes wrong.  With our text problem, they allowed us to add unlimited texting to the kid’s phones retroactively—not back to the beginning of the billing cycle, but a good way back, and that brought the bill down to a manageable level.  Our previous Billing Catastrophe was with another carrier whose customer service department was completely unsympathetic.  That’s how we ended up with Verizon, and we’ve never looked back!

The best advice with cell phones for kids is to start simple and work up from there.  If it’s a first phone, your child will be impressed simply by the fact of having it.  The longer they have it, the more capable and responsible they’ll be, and you can add features as needed.  Most important, never give a child more than he needs or can handle.  Anything beyond is just a waste of money.

What type of cell plan do you think is best for your child?

Photo by C y r i l l i c u s

About kevinmercadante

Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut

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  1. Scott Messner says:

    Unlimited texting is a must for teens.

    We have a prepaid tracfone that our 11 year old uses when she goes somewhere but it’s just to call us. If she wants to talk to one of her friends she uses one of our phones. I can’t see her getting her “own” phone for at least a few years.

    • We TRIED to make it to high school–the original plan, but didn’t make it. All it took was one time not being able to find one of them and we changed our position.

      • Right now our 11yo can text or email friends on my wife’s phone. She’s already asked when she can get her own and has even offered to pay for it. But I explained to her that it’s the service, or minutes, that really cost money.

        We’ll see how long we can hold off!

  2. Best is a basic {read cheap ;-) } cell phone from the likes of tracfone or one of the other prepaid carriers. No bill surprises! And if the kid can hold on to the phone for a year without losing or abusing it then they might be ready for something a bit more advanced. If they DO lose it in that year it won’t hurt your pocket quite so much as that iphone would’ve!