Best Age for a Cell Phone

Kids shouldn't have a cell phone until they're old enough to help pay part of the bill.

This isn't exactly a financial question, but it sure has financial implications. How old do you think a child should be to have a cell phone?

You've struck a cord(less) with that one. The cell phone bill has been a big bone of contention in our house, so I’ve come up with this guideline: Kids shouldn't have a cell phone until they're old enough to pay part of the cost (and help decipher the bill).

Children sometimes try to sell their parents on getting a phone at a younger age for safety reasons or because "everyone else has one." Before you let guilt cloud your better judgment, be honest with yourself and your kids: Is safety really a concern, or is it just a smokescreen so the kids can text their friends or look cool?

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Lest you think I'm an old fogy, my 24-year-old daughter, Claire, has weighed in with some surprisingly strong feelings on this subject. She thinks kids need to learn how to be on their own instead of always being tethered to mom's or dad's wireless.

"When I was a child, part of the fun of going outside to play or to a friend’s house was feeling like I was on my own and taking care of myself," Claire told me. "And really, young kids shouldn't ever be going anywhere where they don't have an adult in charge or can't get to a phone in case of emergency."

Claire's optimum cell-phone age: 15 or when a kid starts to drive.

Whatever you decide, kids should still contribute to the cost. In our household, we agreed to pay for the basic plan but our teenagers paid for their own phones and for text messaging.

If your children are younger or can't afford that, here's a creative suggestion from Steven Nash, of Solon, Ohio.

When Nash decided to get his 12-year-old daughter a cell phone because she was involved in so many activities, he looked at it as an "opportunity." He purchased a phone and drew up his own contract with the following provisions:

"The phone is a spare family phone, and not my daughter's property. The texting option is disabled. If she wants to use the phone, she has to lease it (out of her allowance) for $4 per month. If she goes over a set amount of minutes per month, she owes me 25 cents for each. If the phone is lost, stolen or broken, that is it (she had the option to pay for insurance but declined). Her mother and I retain the option to retrieve and analyze the phone at any time."

Nash's daughter "happily signed the contract."

To keep down the cost and the complications for both you and your kids, consider a prepaid plan, for which you can buy a set number of minutes in advance and don't have to commit to a contract. One Kiplinger's likes for teens is the Boost Mobile Daily Chat & Text plan. You pay a $1-per-day subscription fee, and daytime calls cost 10 cents per minute.

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.