When Should Your Child Get a Cell Phone?

"I NEED a cell phone!" 

If your kids don't have their own cell phones (yet), you're probably hearing that request louder and more often now that they have gone back to school and discovered that even more of their classmates have their own phones.

Boy Cell PhoneWhen should kids get their own cell phones? It really depends on the individual needs and situation of your family. What are your communications needs?  What is your financial situation?  Is a phone for your child a nice-to-have fashion accessory; or is it an essential safety requirement?

If you do decide that now is the time to equip your kids with a cell phone, consider using this as an opportunity to teach a few life lessons. Janet Bodnar, editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine and author of Dollars & Sense for Kids: What They Need to Know About Money--And How to Tell Them weighs in on this issue .

Start with a reality check.  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?
Don’t foot the whole bill.  Teens and tweens should help contribute to the costs associated with a phone.  Try paying for the main plan, and let your kids pay for text messaging.

Take a new "lease" on (cell phone) life.  To teach responsibility, draw up a contract laying out the terms of cell phone usage up front.  An example of lease terms? The phone is available for $4 per month, with insurance available for an additional fee. If your child goes over a set amount of minutes per month, he or she owes 25 cents for each minute. If the phone is lost, stolen or broken, cell phone privileges are revoked.

Consider a prepaid plan. It is possible to buy a set number of minutes in advance without a contract commitment. For teens, Kiplinger's recommends the Boost Mobile Daily Chat & Text plan. You pay a $1-per-day subscription fee, and daytime calls cost 10 cents per minute.

Discuss the do's and don'ts Once you've made the decision and resolved the "business" aspects of your child's cell phone use, you also need to make sure she is clear on  appropriate cell phone behavior and manners. Check out these 15 Cell Phone Tips for Children (and Parents, Too!) from our Everyday Etiquette columnist Diane Gottsman.