If you have made the decision to let your child have their own phone, you might be facing the task of figuring out what kind of plan would be best for their needs. It’s no secret that when it comes to money (in particular, their parent’s money) kids don’t always make the smartest decisions, which is why it’s so important to make the right choice concerning a potentially costly investment such as a phone - especially if you’ll be footing the bill.
We’ve come up with some tips for finding a plan that best suits the needs of your child (and your wallet), and offered a few suggestions to help you narrow it down.
Questions to ask before deciding on a plan
Before you go rushing out to buy the latest and most expensive smartphone on a top tier plan, there are several things you need to consider.
What will they be using it for?
Younger children will just need a way of contacting parents in an emergency, and a means for parents to contact and locate them. Tweens will probably want to be able to text and call their friends as well as family. Teens and older will want to be able to access social networks and browse the web, as well as contact friends.
- For older children – which provider are their friends with?
Many networks will offer free talk and text between customers, so in this case going with the crowd could save you a lot of money (so long as you'll receive good network coverage in your area).
- Which handset has the features you’ll need?
Smaller children don’t need smartphones – a basic cell is enough. Are your children likely to pester for an upgrade to the latest and greatest device? This could be a problem if you get locked into a contract, so SIM-only or monthly plans may be a better option. And if your child has a track record of not exactly being responsible with their possessions, getting the coolest and costliest new phone on a contract is only going to lead to trouble.
- Who will be paying for it?
Prepaid plans can help teach teens the value of money if they pay for it themselves. The biggest benefit of prepaid is no nasty bill shock at the end of the month – you pay for your calls, texts and data use in advance, so it’s perfect for youngsters learning how to budget, or parents wanting to avoid bill-related heart attacks.
- Can you change your mind?
Before getting locked into a contract, it's best to consider what it will cost you to switch or cancel the plan if it's not meeting the needs of your child. Plans with no fixed term are often more economical, as they allow flexibility without slugging you with extra fees.
- For post-paid plans - what charges apply if your child exceeds their limit?
If you are looking at this option it's important to compare call, text and data costs and overages, as these can vary between carriers - although many offer unlimited calls and texts as standard plan inclusions.
Family and mobile share plans
Some carriers offer multi-line plans - or 'family plans' - to help parents monitor and control their children's cell phone use. These plans allow parents to add additional lines to their own plan for a set fee per phone, and often sharing from a single pool of data for all family members.
T-Mobile's Simple Choice family plans include unlimited talk and text and unlimited 2G data for all devices connected, and customers can link up to five devices to their account. While you do get unlimited data, plan pricing varies as to how much high-speed data you want to include in your plan, although the carrier frequently offers special four-line Family Plan deals - for example, the November 2015 Family Match promotion.
Verizon's new-look postpaid plans allow you to connect up to 10 devices to the one account. Customers can enjoy unlimited talking and texting and share a monthly data allowance starting at 1GB, all the way up to 100GB. A single line with one gigabyte of shareable data starts at $50 per month.
AT&T's Mobile Share Plans include unlimited talk and text and shared data, starting at $20 each month for 300MB (not including line access fees, which are $40 or $25 per line depending on how your buy your device). Depending on the plan, you can add up to 10 devices to one account.
Sprint's Family Share Pack plans have replaced its previous Framily Plan options. The carrier frequently runs specials on family plans, such as its current 10GB Family Share Pack deal, which costs $100 per month for four lines. Sprint also offer unlimited data, but only on single-line plans.
Here's a selection of family share plans with four lines - each with 2GB of data and a BYOD option:
Prepaid plans are an ideal option for teens who'll be paying for their cell themselves, or parents wanting to avoid the stress of unexpected charges appearing on their monthly bill.
Monthly plans usually start at around $10 a month and go up to the more top tier unlimited plans, where you'll be looking at $80 - $100 monthly depending on how much data your teen requires (or demands). Virgin Mobile and US Cellular's prepaid plans both feature unlimited minutes and texting options (as well as data) starting at $35 - $40 each month.
You'll also find plenty of lower-priced options from prepaid brands such as Cricket Wireless, Boost Mobile, Ring Plus, Text Now and Republic Wireless - you can check out a few of our picks here.
Another big plus - many prepaid offers are also bring your own phone/SIM only, so instead of shelling out for a new cell for your son or daughter, parents are able to connect a hand-me-down phone to a prepaid plan (see our SIM only guide to find out more about how these plans work).
You can compare prepaid plans with the below tool:
Ting: pay for what you use
Most carriers also have the option of pay-as-you-go deals, but we recommend an MVNO such as Ting if you prefer this method - you can adjust the data, call and text buckets each month and only pay for what you actually use, without the usual pricey pay-as-you-go costs.
You can adjust your child's plan on a month-to-month basis and set alerts and hard caps for voice calls, messaging and data use. It's an ideal option for parents wanting their kids to have a 'just in case' cell phone, or a low-cost way of contacting their child (without the added cost of data or texts). You'll only pay for what your kids use each billing cycle, as well as a $6 monthly fee for each device you add to your plan.
Compare Ting plans here:
Kajeet plans for kids
If you're looking for an extra level of reassurance, Sprint MVNO Kajeet is 'designed for kids by parents' and offers plans specifically aimed at parents wanting to monitor their child's cellphone use. All plans are prepaid, and come with some pretty unbeatable levels of parental control.
You can control when you child's phone can and cannot be used, which contacts your child can communicate with, and what websites and applications - if any - if your child can view. You can also nominate who will pay for specific calls and texts and set usage limits, and use GPS to see your child's location and receive alerts when they have arrived safely at a destination such as school or work.
Things to remember before you decide
- Your child must be 18 before they can sign a contract (and even 19 or 21 in some states), so chances are the phone will be in your name. That means that large bills and missed payments are legally your responsibility.
- Be wary of premium content, such as downloading ringtones or games or sending texts to promotional services - they’re charged at a much higher rate than standard texts and downloads, and are usually not covered by plan inclusions.
- Be aware that allowing apps to run in the background, or enabling automatic notifications for things such as Facebook or email, uses up both data and battery life. You can always disable automatic notifications through the 'Settings' option on your child's phone.
Toddler with phone image via Shutterstock