Getting a Cell Phone for Your 'Tween

Wireless carriers are targeting a new group of consumers: parents of kids from the ages of 10 to 15. But should your preteen have a cell phone, and can you afford it? Personal finance guru Michelle Singletary joins Madeleine Brand to discuss the high cost of 'tween talking.


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

The adult cell phone market is saturated. Wireless carriers are now targeting a new group of customers: kids between the ages of 10 and 15. At least one provider plans to start selling wireless phone service in June specifically designed for them and their parents. Should your teen or preteen have a cell phone, and can you afford it? Joining us to answer those questions and others is our personal finance contributor, Michelle Singletary. Hi, Michelle.

Ms. MICHELLE SINGLETARY (Personal Finance Contributor): Hi.

BRAND: Many parents say that their children actually need cell phones, that they need to be in touch with their children at all times. What do you think?

Ms. SINGLETARY: I think they're crazy. I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: What do you really think?

Ms. SINGLETARY: Let me back up. What do I really think, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, it never ceases to amaze me how we turn something that is a want into a need. To me, there is no child under the age of 16 who needs a cell phone. Where in the world is this child going to be where there shouldn't be some adult supervision? And trust me, 99.9 percent of those adults will have a cell phone, and they can use that phone to call you.

BRAND: Okay, and what if all these people out there are saying, you know what, I don't agree with you. I'm giving my preteen a cell phone. How much will they expect to pay when the phone bill comes?

Ms. SINGLETARY: On average, the teen bills run between $40 and $50 a month, and I, that just, that just astounds me, particularly when you look at the price of college education. And many of these folks whose kind have cell phone, when it come time to send them to college are crying the blues, because they don't have enough to send them to college. That's because they talked away their college money. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: $50.00 a month, that's a lot of talking. Even if you're on a family plan that you keep seeing advertised?

Ms. SINGLETARY: Yes, that's right, because here's what they--they're not just talking, they're text messaging each other, they're sending pictures, they're downloading music and other content, and so that increases the phone bill.

BRAND: Now Michelle, what about this plan that actually lets parents set a limit on how much their kids can talk on the phone, and thereby it would seem to contain the costs there. What about that kind of plan?

Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, it sounds on the surface like a good idea, that parents can set a limit on how much they will spend every month for the kids to talk, and that includes the voice minutes, text messaging, picture messaging, and downloadable content. Sounds reasonable. However, unless you're going to spend a dollar a month on this phone, it's still probably, for most people, more than they should be spending, especially if they're tying to save for this kid to go to college. That's $30 or $40 or $50 that should be going into their college fund. And let's say your kid gets a cell phone at 13, and, you know, 18 goes off to college. You know, that's 3,000, more than $3,000 that you would have blown on a cell phone bill. And I know many, if not all college students who would be happy to get a $3000 check towards their books or fees or whatever once they head off to college.

BRAND: Or towards their first cell phone.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, most of the people that have a cell phone don't need a cell phone, and I certainly don't think it is an appropriate use for children.

BRAND: Michelle Singletary is our regular guest for conversations about personal finance. Her latest book is Your Money and Your Man: How You and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich. Thanks, Michelle.

Ms. SINGLETARY: Your welcome.

BRAND: And if you have money questions for Michelle, don't call, send them in. Go to our Web site, Click on the contact us link, that's at the top of every page, and be sure to include Michelle in you subject line.

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