Our kids’ data usage is killing us

A photo illustration of data charges and urban landscape

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?

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SM
SM

Prepaid is the way to go for teens. I don’t know why you call them ‘harsh and inconvenient,’ because they only allow one to spend what they can afford. There are tons of good prepaid options now that are great, and overages just don’t occur.

stellamarina
stellamarina

I would be interested in hearing of prepaid options in the US. In many countries this is the usual way of paying for phones and I think the US usual of a monthly phone bill….especially if it is hooked up to a credit card payment… is not a good way of life.

Jerome
Jerome

We have capped plans for our teens. They can use their phone as long as they want, but once the cap is reached the speed of the internet goes down to 75kb/s for the rest of the month. Which means that messages and using the phone are still possible but gaming and streaming is not. Works a treat and avoids all those ‘interesting’ discussions with our kids.
Prepaid plans also functioned well with our children but having the ability of still using the phone and sending messages after reaching the cap is a useful ability in our opinion.

Tiara Joseph
Tiara Joseph

Thats good Jerome. People who struggle to keep their data usage in check won’t have to work so hard because of slowed down Internet speed. Rather, they’ll continue to use data and yet needn’t care about crossing the limit. It’s human to yearn for more but in a limited fashion. This will help people to practice self-control and be more sober with their Internet use.

Coopersmith
Coopersmith

Simple solution. Be a parent and give them all dumb phones and take away that nonsense.They need to be taught that money does not come out of you a$$ and needs to be earned. My sons who are 21 and 23 have dumb phones because the agreement is I will pay for a dumb phone and if they want a smart phone they will need to pay ME for it.15 years old is old enough to get a job. My sons have conclude that they are able to WIFI every thing they need for college and a smart phone is… Read more »

Jenn
Jenn

You’re right on! For our boys, we didn’t provide phones to them at all. Once they turned 18, they could choose to buy a phone (and plan) themselves – or not. For the younger ones, we have a ‘family phone’ that is a dumb flip phone to be borrowed on occasion for calls to us to arrange transportation for example.

lmoot
lmoot

“I won’t ever book a vacation at a place that doesn’t have free wifi.” Not trying to be snarky, but you let wifi dictate your choices to that level? What about camping? Maybe that isn’t your thing, but even remote lodging with all the trimmings may not have free wifi. I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve never even thought to check on the wifi because there are so many more factors that go into my consideration of where to spend my time. I don’t know how much you make, but $500/month for cable, phones, and internet for 4 people (who… Read more »

Paul
Paul

We have Republic Wireless and our son is on the $10 plan. He has unlimited data with wi-fi, but no data at all otherwise. My wife has gone over once or twice, but it’s usually due to being on the road.

Latoya @ Femme Frugality
Latoya @ Femme Frugality

I didn’t know they had cap plans. This seems like it would be beneficial when my kid reaches the age of maturity for a phone. I want to be able to keep a close eye on her, so thanks for sharing:)

cb
cb

Through our carrier we were able to put a data limit on each of our teens phones to ensure we don’t go over the family shared data limit. One daughter consistently uses up her allotment early and frequently waits 7-10 days for the next cycle to start. The other has learned to be wiser in their usage.

KT
KT

Why not just shop around for an unlimited data plan?

Priswell
Priswell

They don’t really exist anymore. You buy your data in chunks hoping to not go over. If you buy from a company that advertises as “Unlimited”, what they are actually doing is giving you 2 or 3GB of data at 4G or 4G LTE speeds. After that, you still have access to data, but at no more than 3G speeds.

A very few people do have Unlimited data, but these are great-great-great-great-grandfathered into their contract.

Mike
Mike

As a Dad I will have to say, put down the phones. Or stop streaming videos and music. Streaming chews data up.

Finance Solver
Finance Solver

Wow 5GB over the allotted plan is a lot.. I have a 6GB (that I upgraded from 2GB) that I share with another member and know that we’ve never went over 3GB because of wifi so hopefully we don’t ever go over the 6GB! Potentially making the children have a small stake in paying for the data portion of the phone bill might be a solution

Bill in NC
Bill in NC

Switch all your lines over to Cricket prepaid (owned by AT&T)

$40/month for unlimited talk/text, 2.5GB data (per line, not shared).

There’s a $10 discount on each additional line, so 4 lines = $100/month (no other taxes/fees).

Data can be doubled (per line) in $10 increments, e.g. $10/month more for 5GB, $20/month more for 10GB, $30/month more for unlimited data.

Tiara Joseph
Tiara Joseph

I don’t have kids nor any of us devour data so voraciously. We tend to stick to our data cap and in case, our data has reached its limit (which usually happens at the fag end of each month, we refrain from Internet for sometime), we don’t use any further. We hardly have the apetite to connect online, after having worked on the Internet for full 9-10 hours a day. Unless extremely important, there’s hardly any need for us to use our data. Whatever data we have, its for emergency use and not for streaming Youtube videos or otherwise.

Sukanya
Sukanya

I think Prepaid is the best options for teens. It allows one to spend what they can afford. There are tons of good prepaid options now that are great, and overages just don’t occur.

evans
evans

the data cap plan seems great especially for small institutions like ours where the intranet and wifi isnt controlled thanks

daizy
daizy

We have wifi-only in our house. The teen has an old iphone for when free wifi is available and a plain tracfone for calls. I have a Republic wireless phone for calls and text and use free wifi. He can do whatever he can afford when he turns 18 next year.

Xyz
Xyz

I think that’s the best and cheapest way to go. Congrats on keeping those boundaries.

Vel
Vel

I am no longer able to track my kids on locator apps ex: find friends once they have reached their data limit. Any suggestions?

Fluffy Clouds
Fluffy Clouds

Here’s a pro tip – only allow video and/or music streaming while on WiFi. Do NOT allow those uses on data. Video or music streaming gobbles data like a fat kid at a smartie convention. People that think they need those features while away from WiFi are delusional. In Canada, data is very expensive, even with so called family plans. Differentiate between wants and needs. Not everyone needs to be saddled with a $60-80+ Cdn. / month cell phone plan. That’s ludicrous, on top of already paying for internet at home. This is the main problem with kids today –… Read more »

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