The first rule of Data Club is don't go over your monthly data allotment.
The second rule of Data Club is if you do go over, only go over a little.
The third rule of Data Club is hope Dad doesn't notice we've gone over our data allotment because he will be mad and will give us a talking-to. Ah, data. The modern-day parents' nightmare. In my parents' day, we had a phone bill, and that paid for the phone. One phone. In the house, attached to the wall. A decade or two later came the cable bill, which paid for that giant box on the top of the TV that allowed us to endlessly watch the same seven movies on what was then called Home Box Office. Those were good times.
These days, we have a cable bill, which includes our VOIP phone line (which is only good for calling our cell phones when we can't find them and fighting off the Help desk from “Microsoft Windows.”) Our cable bill, which gives us television, internet and house phone, averages $200 a month. The only variable is the occasional movie On Demand, which we seldom use because we like Netflix.
Our wireless comes to us from our friends at AT&T, and I just want to say right up front for the record that I have been an AT&T wireless customer since my first flip phone, and I like the company. We get great coverage, including at my mother's house in the Berkshire Hills, where no one else's cell phone seems to work, and I have always had positive customer service interactions.
Our wireless bill (we have four phones, unlimited talk and text, and the Mobile Share Value 15GB with Rollover Data Plan) is about $300 a month. Unless (cue scary music) we go over the data.
I remember when I bought my first smartphone and I got a data plan. I think it was 1GB. I distinctly remember the phone store guy telling me, “You will never come close to using that up unless you stream videos 24 hours a day.” Those were good times.
Recently, our family violated the third rule of Data Club — we went so far over the data allotment that Dad/Husband noticed and we received a talking-to. We were 5 GB over, which equals $50. And while we all received The Talk, there was really only one culprit: the 15-year-old.
That's right. The 12,620 belongs to the 15-year-old. The 5,149 belongs to the 18-year-old. The 1,273 is mine. And the 119 is Dad/Husband (I know, he's adorable, right? Half that was probably accidental.)
Now, it's not like I am not always yelling at them “Use wifi!!!” Because I am. And I won't ever book a vacation at a place that doesn't have free wifi. Because it's 2016, and we are on our phones. So if your advice is to tell me to “put down our phones,” keep it to yourself. We aren't going to.
The 15-year-old is often in places without wifi, including 10-hour long track meets and 2-hour long bus rides to and from said track meets. So I get it, at least intellectually. But it doesn't make it less of a challenge.
It's not just my problem
It's always good to know you aren't alone, so I posed the question on the Get Rich Slowly Facebook page, where there is always a plethora of great ideas and suggestions (and very little judgment!). Here are some:
Draconian: We turned off her phone. We said turn off your data, and she didn't, multiple months in a row. We gave her notice, and it was closed. She's 18 so she can get her own phone and pay for all the data she wants.
Not just kids: No children but I do have a husband that recently acquired a new tablet and new wireless earbuds with what was just supposed to be a new phone purchase. So now our bill is $300+ dollars a month. We have unlimited data, though I still prefer to use wifi (it's faster). I sometimes wonder if kids would be cheaper.
It turns out there's an app for that: Verizon offers a family management plan for $5 per month. I set the data caps, hours that the phone is operable, can see what numbers are called/being called and could block certain numbers if needed. The hours of operation are set so the phone doesn't work during the hours she is supposed to be home and asleep. The only time we went over the data limit was when my husband over used! Then I put him in a data cap too :). Easy enough to override when we want, so you could easily let the kids use more data if they want to pay you for it.
And this one too: I discovered that I could cap the data used for each phone on my plan by logging into my account on my provider's website. So I decided how much I was willing to pay and then capped the data at that. (2GB per phone.) I told my two teenagers what I had done. My daughter hit her cap once, and then had no data until the new month when it automatically turned back on. She now budgets her data wisely. But my son hits his data cap within two weeks every month and then is sad until it refreshes. I am hoping that one of these days he'll learn to pace himself, but in the meantime he is only hurting himself. I always tell them if they don't like it they can pay for their own but they'd rather have less with me paying for it than to pay for it themselves.
Slow it down: No teens yet, but we're on StraightTalk. 5GB a month, then the speed throttles *way* down. Painful, to say the least. It will teach moderation pretty quickly
The sky's the limit: Unlimited data. Makes more sense and I don't ever have to worry about my kiddo not being able to contact me.
Punishment and then a little more punishment: Loss of privileges. Then re-earn privileges with 6 months on a prepaid plan. (Like virgin/trac phone/etc) harsh and inconvenient, but necessary.
And judgment: I taught them respect and responsibility early. She pays her own phone bill. Maybe don't enable them to think they are getting a free ride?
There are controls
After reading all these comments (and there are lots more, click over to see), I did some research and AT&T offers a plan similar to Verizon's called Smart Limits. For another $9.99/month (which is the equivalent of 1 GB overage) I can:
Block access to cellular data for any line on your account.
Help your family manage data use by setting up text reminders to switch to wifi when a set amount of cellular data is used. (AT&T already texts and emails me when we are near our limit, and then for every GB over, I get another notification.)
Encourage responsible phone use by limiting text, outbound calling, and cellular data use during specific times of the day.
Avoid unexpected mobile content charges on your AT&T account by limiting purchase for apps, music, and games.4
It also offers excellent surveillance! Check this out:
View Daily Activity: Check in on your child's calling and texting activity during the day or night.
Weekly Reports: Gain insight into phone use with weekly reports on the amount of texting and calling activity.
Top Contacts: Stay in touch by knowing with whom and how often your child is communicating with Contacts.
Alerts: Receive customized alerts for text and call activity, and receive new contact alerts.
All that would've been worth the money when my kids were tweens and young teens navigating the scary world of smartphones. But I honestly don't think with ‘grown up' teens that this extra monthly expense is worth it.
There are lots of cell phone plans outside of the Big Four (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon Wireless). In fact, many of the smaller carriers are subsidiaries of those four major companies. The Internet has some great comparison articles out there explaining the deals offered and which constituency they might best fit.
My plan to stay within the plan is to keep yelling “WIFI” in my son's ear, and to make him pay for the overages when they are clearly his fault. How about you? How do you deal with your kids' data usage?
Author: Elissa Bass
Elissa Bass is a nationally award-winning journalist who has been a reporter and editor for both print and online publications for 30 years. After a layoff in 2013, she now runs her own marketing/social media/PR company. Born and raised in western Massachusetts, she makes her home in Stonington, CT with her husband, their two children, and their rescued pit bull. Visit her website at http://www.elissabass.com/ to learn more.