Two weeks ago, I took to this space to ask four key questions about cars and teenagers and suggest four possible ways of paying for what they drive.
As is often the case with this crowd of readers, the resulting commentary was illuminating. One of my favorite bitscame from the shellshocked parent for whom the car conversation was unfathomable. Her family had not even been able to build consensus around what constituted responsible use of the resident teenager’s mobile phone.
The phone is its own financial discussion, or at least it should be. Another reader, Mary Kay Russell, the mother of four boys in Naperville, Ill., wrote to me for feedback on her own approach, one she says no other family she knows actually uses.
Her theory is this: Teenagers do not need smartphones. So if they want devices that do much of anything beyond voice calls and text messages, they ought to pay for the fancy phone and the necessary data plan themselves.
We’ll call this the Russell Plan. Here’s how it fits in with the want-versus-need negotiation that’s in the background of almost every discussion with kids about money.
First, is a basic phone necessary at all? In 2014, I think it is. Sure, you may be fine with not being able to reach your children whenever you want. Maybe you even think it’s good for them to not be able reach you right away if they get into a jam.
Still, you do have to consider their friends. If all of them have phones, the planning of social and extracurricular activities may happen mostly through text messages. Coaches and other adults in their lives, knowing that many teenagers don’t bother much with email, may have already defaulted to group texts. If that’s the case in your circles, a basic phone is probably a requirement. Curse modernity, but there you go.
Most parents pay for the things their kids need if they can afford them. So in this instance, it probably means upgrading your mobile phone service to some kind of family plan, which may come with unlimited voice calls and text messages. This might add $30 or so a month depending on the package you have before the first child gets a phone. The Russell Plan in Naperville calls for picking up this tab.
Smartphones and their associated data costs are another matter though. Do kids need Instagram and a store full of apps? Probably not. A mapping app may help teenagers find their way while driving, but it’s probably better for them to learn to navigate the road with their heads up anyhow. Buy them a Rand McNally paper atlas to consult before putting the car in gear, or a good local map.
Because a smartphone isn’t a true need, the Russell Plan means that their boys make do with a bare-bones phone. Parents will want to add their own rules about billing overages (if calls or texts are not unlimited) and the person responsible for the cost of replacing lost or broken phones (the kids, not the grown-ups). This isn’t an etiquette column, but I liked the additional guidelines in anintrafamily phone contract that went viral last year.
As for smartphones, the Russell boys were welcome to have them as long as they paid for the phone upgrade and wrote a $360 check for the first year’s data charges ahead of time. The eldest son first decided to do this at age 21, but none of the others have made the leap yet.
Is all of this too harsh? Should parents really make their children buy themselves everything that they merely want? Every family makes their own decisions about this, but my reporting over the last few years has turned up a number of perfectly reasonable mothers and fathers who believe that teenagers should save like adults do and pay for any larger objects of desire.
Or, the older children could wait to receive these things as gifts. Ms. Russell said that a smartphone and a year of data could have replaced a birthday present and much of the Christmas budget, but the boys weren’t willing to give up the gift pile under the tree or commit to paying for the data plan in future years.
All of this suggests that the Russell kids really didn’t want smartphones all that much and must not have needed them at all. Which leads Ms. Russell to wonder why so many parents she knows write checks for the phones and data for their own teenagers without stopping to question the purchases.
What is she missing? And how do you handle the mobile phone bill and budget with your children?
Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Opposite of Spoiled,” about parenting, money, values and raising the kinds of children all parents want to push out into the world, no matter how much money they have (Harper Collins, February, 2015). He hosts regular conversations about these topics on his Facebook pageand welcomes comments here or privately, via his website. The Opposite of Spoiled appears on Motherlode on alternating Thursdays.