Mom, Can I Have A Cell Phone?

Check out the new plans that carriers have added to make phones more affordable

Even since the days of Trimlines and Princess phones, teenagers and telephones have been linked at the ear. It's no different today, although the phone is likely to be a brightly colored wireless handset and as much fashion accessory as communications tool. One out of five American teens owns a cell phone, according to a survey done earlier this year by Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook (Ill.) market research firm. Among those who don't, it's the most-sought-after coming-of-age badge on their shopping lists.

Because wireless carriers sell only to adults, parents are willing accomplices in the surge in popularity of cell phones among their offspring. To parents, outfitting the kids with phones gives them a high-tech lifeline, a way for teens to call for help in an emergency and a way for parents to keep track of them. Most often, the first cell phone comes along with the keys to the family car. The fad is driven by economics, too. Today's average monthly cell-phone bill--for 180 minutes--is around $40, compared with $90 a decade ago, when only busy executives could afford the ultimate in cool.

If you're about to give in to that subtle pressure from your teenager or need the added sense of security for yourself, you should check out the new plans that carriers have added to make phones for kids more affordable (table). Because per-minute charges go down as usage goes up, nearly every company has established some kind of scheme in which family members can all draw on the same pool of minutes. Sprint, for example, offers a Chinese menu of $10-a-month options on top of its basic Free & Clear plans, including free long-distance or Internet access. One pick is Add-a-Phone, where additional users get their own phone and number but share the minutes on one service plan.

HEFTY SURCHARGE. The LaCasse family of Glendale, Calif., opted for a similar FamilyTalk plan from Pacific Bell, a unit of SBC Wireless, when they gave daughter Ashley a phone for her 14th birthday. Megan, 16, who had been borrowing her mother's phone, got her own as part of the deal. Their mother, Emmalou, signed a $50 contract for 450 minutes a month and pays an extra $20 a month each for the girls to have their own lines. All three share the minutes.

Or that's how it was supposed to be. "When the bills come, Ashley and I have a third of a page, and Megan's calls go on for four pages," she says. Despite a hefty surcharge for all of Megan's minutes that go over the plan, LaCasse wouldn't think of giving the plan up. "It's my link while she's out in the world."

If you're afraid your children will talk you out of house and home, it might be a better idea to go with a plan where members have their own accounts, each with a fixed number of minutes, such as AT&T's Family Plan. That way, you can sign up for the $50-a-month, 400-minute package and give the $25, 60-minute account to your youngster. Or, more likely, vice versa.

The lure for this plan is unlimited local calls home or to other family members. You can get the same thing on certain shared-minute plans as well. Some Verizon Wireless services offer unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling between Verizon phones. Besides allowing family members to stay in touch for free, they can be a godsend for teenagers whose friends subscribe to the same brand of wireless service.

If you're new to cell-phone service, a good place to start your research is (, an e-tailer with an array of unbiased tools for side-by-side comparisons of the different carriers and equipment in your part of the country. As good as it is, however, it can't keep up with the ever-changing promotions run by the wireless companies. For those, you'll have to scan the local papers. The best often offer extra night and weekend minutes to new subscribers (important for those conference calls when Dawson's Creek is on TV).

WORTHWHILE INSURANCE. There also are deals that give you one or more phones free if you sign a multiyear service contract. But with per-minute rates falling about 15% a year, you might be better off paying cash for the phones instead of locking yourself into higher rates for two or three years. Free phones or not, consider paying an extra $3 or $4 a month to insure against loss. Emmalou LaCasse was glad she did: Daughter Ashley's snazzy blue Nokia phone was swiped from her purse three days after she got it.

A few other tips: If phone use gets out of hand, review the bills together and make clear what you consider appropriate use. It might help to point out that 300 minutes a month is only 10 minutes a day, for example. Point out that incoming, and not just outgoing, calls incur charges. Explain the expensive surcharges for "roaming" out of the home calling area. As a last resort, you can threaten to put them on a prepaid plan. Minutes are expensive, from 30 cents to a dollar or more, but when they're gone, they're gone.

With costs coming down fast, you'll soon be able to give your teenagers a cell phone as their only phone. Cricket Communications, a tiny new carrier in Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., offers unlimited local service for $29.95 a month. At that price, a cell phone is not much more than adding a second or third line to the house--the one that's traditionally dedicated to the teenager's bedroom.