Tips to Shrink Your Teen’s Cell Phone Bill

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Think your teen needs a cell phone but not sure what model or plan to get? Here's what to consider and how to save money in the process.

According to Nielsen, 58 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. now own a smartphone, up from 36 percent just a year ago.

I had a cell phone when I was a teenager. Granted, it wasn’t a smartphone, but my parents did foot the bill on my basic device. And it came in handy for all of us. I could call home whenever I needed anything, and my mom got peace of mind knowing she could find me anytime.

Buying a cell phone for your teenager (smartphone or not) is more complicated than starting up your own plan. You’ve got more to consider: For example, just how much can a teen text? And more you might want to control, such as mature content. Read on for a breakdown of important points to consider and ways to save.

1. Devices

Generally, basic cell phones are cheaper than smartphones. For example, AT&T is currently selling the iPhone 5 16GB for $649.99 without a contract and $199.99 with a two-year commitment. They also offer a basic-model LG for $219.99 without a contract or $19.99 with a contract.

You can get a discount on both smartphones and basic cell phones by adding a line with a new contract agreement or starting a new family plan with another wireless provider. In the example above, the iPhone 5 16GB is $450 cheaper with a contract.

Of course, you could always do what my parents did – wait until you’re eligible for an upgrade, buy a new handset at a discounted price for yourself, and give your teen your old model.

2. Plans

Since most wireless providers won’t give a postpaid plan to a teen without income or credit, you can either add a line and upgrade your single-service plan to a family plan or purchase a separate prepaid plan for your teen.

Family plans have two or more lines that share minutes, texts, and data. Wireless providers offer both unlimited plans and capped plans. For example, here are the cheapest family plans currently available through these major carriers:

  • T-Mobile: 1,000 shared minutes for $59.98 per month for two lines. $5.00 per month for each additional line.
  • AT&T: 500 shared minutes for $59.99 per month for two lines. $9.95 per month for each additional line.
  • Sprint: 700 shared minutes for $69.99 per month for two lines. $9.99 per month for each additional line.

Family plans are often the cheapest bet, but they can be risky. If your teen goes over your monthly minutes, you could pay up to $0.45 for each additional minute.

Alternatively, you can buy a prepaid cell phone for your teen. This route will keep you from having any surprise bills. For example:

  • Net10: 200 minutes and 30 days of service for $20
  • Cricket: 300 minutes plus texting and Web access for $25
  • Straight Talk: 1,000 minutes, 1,000 text messages, and 30MB of Web access during 30 days of service for $30

However, prepaid plans have some downsides. Typically you will have to pay full price for the cell phone, although the prepaid providers do run the occasional sale. You will also have to remember to reload minutes onto the phone every month or your teen won’t be able to make any calls or send texts.

3. Features

If you or your teen has a smartphone, you’ll typically be required to have a data plan through your provider. But even with basic phones, you might want to consider adding some features like data and texting. According to a recent survey by Common Sense Media, 9 out of 10 teens have texted, tweeted, or visited Facebook – many of them daily. Having a monthly allotment is cheaper than paying per text or per website visit if your teen uses the services often. For example:

  • AT&T: $30 per month for unlimited family messaging, or $0.20 per text
  • Sprint: $20 per month for unlimited family messaging, or $0.20 per text
  • T-Mobile: $20 per month for unlimited family messaging, or $0.20 per text.

For texting, you’re charged for each incoming and outgoing text. A monthly plan pays off after 100 texts for T-Mobile and Sprint and 150 texts for AT&T.

And before you say your teen won’t text that much, consider this: My teenage sister sends me an average of 250 to 500 text messages a month, and that is for one person in her phone book. If my family didn’t have unlimited texts, it would cost $50 to $100 a month just for her to text me.

4. Keeping tabs on your kids

If you and your teen share a plan, you can add another feature – “family locating” – so that you can keep tabs on your kid virtually. Three major wireless providers currently offer this service.

  • Verizon‘s Family Locator app for Androids and iPhones tracks your teen’s location using GPS, allows you to set check-in alerts that will notify you when they’ve arrived somewhere safely, and sends departure alerts. Requires both you and your teen have a smartphone. $9.99 per month.
  • Sprint‘s Family Locator works on smartphones and basic phones. However, basic phones will only give you a general location, which is not as specific as GPS locator services. $5 per month for up to four phones.
  • AT&T‘s Family Map locates your teen both on your phone and online and allows you to create scheduled notifications. $9.99 per month for two phones, $14.99 per month for three or more phones.

5. Parental controls

Finally, after you pick out a device and plan for your teen, you have the option of setting parental controls on a shared line. These controls will put a limit on what your teen can do, and who can and cannot contact them. Not all service providers offer the same controls, and most charge an additional monthly fee for the service. Here is how they break down:

AT&T – $4.99 per month

  • Texting limit
  • Limit downloadable purchases
  • Content filter
  • Outbound call blocking at set times
  • Phone number blocking for incoming calls and texts

Sprint – free

  • Blocks all texting and picture messages
  • Blocks downloadable purchases
  • Content filter
  • Phone number blocking

T-Mobile – $4.99 per month

  • Limits talk time
  • Limits texting
  • Limits downloadable purchases
  • Content filter
  • Blocks up to 10 phone numbers

Verizon Wireless – $4.99 per month

  • Limits talk time
  • Limits texting
  • Limits downloadable purchases
  • Content filter
  • Blocks calling at set times
  • Blocks up to 20 phone numbers

Have you bought a cell phone for your teenager recently? Have any great experiences or surprise bills? Sound off on our Facebook page and tell us about it.

Stacy Johnson

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