Our Phone Plan Strategy for Four Kids

As a family with four kids, with the oldest two being almost thirteen and eleven, we’re starting to think about getting them smartphones.

When our oldest was about eight, we got him a Gizmo Watch. We wanted to be able to communicate with him and a Gizmo Watch was the easiest (and most affordable) way because we were already using Verizon for our phones.

The Gizmo Watches were a good gateway device because they taught them responsibility (keep it safe, clean, charged) while not giving them too much ability – they could only text and call with a few approved people. No internet, no distractions at school, but we could find them and reach them when necessary.

Now that our oldest is almost thirteen, we’re about entering the time when he might need a cell phone. He hasn’t asked for one yet. And he often talks about how kids at school are often playing on their phones or Chromebooks, rather than doing work, so he’s mature enough to know the dangers. But he’s also kid. It’s a dopamine culture.

I’ve seen kids his age (sometimes even younger) with older iPhones and while I still think we’re a few years away from going full smartphone, I want to start researching the options now so I know my options.

When Should A Kid Get a Phone?

This is a tricky question. And one you’ll have to answer for your own kid as every kid is different.

Our oldest is fairly responsible and we trust his ability to moderate his usage. But I also know a kid is a kid and videos are fun to watch. Chatting with friends is fun. I’ve been to parties where slightly older kids just sit on their phones in the corner and watch short-form videos the whole time. The whole time.

I also know the strong appeal of social media and how that can distort a child’s brain very easily (it distorts adult brains pretty easily too!). He’s on a few group chats and I can see him get sucked into them and those are just chats!

The reason social media apps, especially short-form video apps, are so popular is because they rely on dopamine feedback loops.

Complete abstinence is not the answer. For phones or anything else. 😆

So this gives us an opportunity to teach him how to use these devices responsibly.

Seeing our two oldest manage with smart(ish) watches gives us a good way to establish boundaries and learn to use technology for good and not for dopamine hits.

My tentative plan is to:

  • Smartphone in high school
  • Smartwatch in middle school
  • Gizmo Watch in elementary school (starting at around 2nd grade)

What Are Our Phone Options?

There are three options:

  1. Low-Cost Cell Phone – Limiting data and using an MVNO carrier
  2. “Full Service” Cell Phone – Adding them to your existing family plan
  3. Smart Watch – All the communications capability, none of the scary apps 😂

Low-Cost Cell Phone Plans

There has been a huge proliferation of low-cost cell phone plans that piggyback off one of the larger carrier networks. They known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) because the provider doesn’t own their network – they use a bigger company’s network (Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.).

And we’re seeing quite a bit of consolidation in this space as the larger networks acquire these MVNOs. T-Mobile just acquired U.S. Cellular after buying Mint Mobile in 2023. They still operate independently though.

You can check out our full list of the cheapest family cell phone plans here.

Mint Mobile

Mint Mobile is probably the most well-known because of Ryan Reynolds’ involvement (he’s so dreamy!).

Mint Mobile offers Premium Wireless for $15 a month. It comes with unlimited talk and text plus 5 GB of high-speed data. If you exceed 5 GB of data in a month, you still get data, but it’s slower.

If you want more high-speed data, you just pay more. You can get a family plan with multiple lines, each on a different data plan. You just have to bring your own unlocked 4G LTE and VoLTE-friendly phone for each line.

These plans are really no different than “full service” cell phone plans, except they’re extraordinarily cheap. The only difference is that your amount of “high speed data” is limited because they use another carrier’s network (in name only though, since T-Mobile acquired them in 2024).

Here’s our full review of Mint Mobile.

Tello

Tello is another low-cost cell phone plan option for the kids. It has a no-data plan that includes 100 minutes of calling and free texts for $5 a month. You can also add one GB of data for just $6 a month.

What’s neat about Tello is that it lets you build your own plan so you can customize the number of minutes and data and they give you a price. So you could customize different plans to different children’s needs.

For example, you could do a no-data plan with limited talk for a younger child, but then give your older child unlimited talk and 2 GB of data. You can easily adjust as the child ages so they always have the appropriate amount of service for their age.

Here’s our full Tello review.

Twigby

Twigby runs on the Verizon network and has four plans that include data. The least expensive is $15 a month ($5 for the first three months) and comes with 2GB of data and unlimited talk and text. The most expensive is $35 a month ($25 for the first three months) and that has 20GB of data and unlimited talk and text.

The middle two plans are 5 and 10 GB of data with unlimited talk and text for $20 or $25 per month, respectively.

Like most MVNOs, if you go over the data limit, you can still use data; it’s just not high speed. Twigby states additional data is 2G speeds which is not enough for streaming.

If you’d rather not have any data on your plan, you can get just unlimited talk and text for $10 a month ($5 for the first three months).

Here’s our full review of Twigby.

“Full Service” Cell Phone Plans

This was our first consideration – we could give our oldest one of our old iPhones and then add the line to our plan. This is the “easiest” answer because all you have to do is add a line to our existing plan. It’s also the most expensive because our plan gives us unlimited data – each of our lines costs $80 a month (but we get $10 off from this Verizon loyalty hack).

Just reviewing our own account made me pause — do I really need a $80-a-month phone? Could I get by with an MVNO phone at half the price? How much data am I really even using?

Based on regular usage, it turns out that I use a lot of data and I work from home! (my lovely wife uses even more… but she actually leaves the house)

But even at 15 GB a month, with Mint Mobile you’d only be on the 2nd lowest plan and that costs $35 a month. It’s something worth considering if you’re on a full-service plan.

We talked to quite a few people about this (many in the same situation where they’re thinking about phones for their kids) and they’ve gone with a MVNO because it’s so much cheaper. Mint Mobile’s “unlimited” (which is a 40 GB limit) is still only $40 a month. That’s $40 less than what we’re paying and I use less than 10 GB a month.

Going “full service” with our son’s phone doesn’t make much sense.

Smartwatch (Apple Watch)

Spoiler Alert: This is what we ended up doing.

This is similar to going with a “Full Service” cell phone plan except instead of adding a phone, you’re adding a smartwatch. In our case, we opted to go with an Apple Watch.

This gives you the ability to reach your child and they can text their friends, but they don’t have access to a lot of the same apps you can get on the phone. For example, there is no TikTok app (natively) for the Apple Watch.

There are ways to get around it though, so if your kid is sneaky and sufficiently motivated, getting them an Apple Watch doesn’t mean you don’t need to monitor their activity.

With an Apple Watch, our costs are just $10 a month (plus fees and surcharges). It’s cheaper than the MVNO phone plans but it’s also just a smartwatch plan.

It’s the amount of capability we’re comfortable with. When the time comes to upgrade, I suspect we will pass on one of our phones (we’re both on iPhone 12s) and activate him on a MVNO like Mint Mobile or Twigby.

Devices Get Handed Down

Much like clothes, devices are passed down from child to child. Our oldest gets the benefit of getting the newest devices (though they’re used or handed down from our friends without kids!), but this gives us a path forward to electronics without huge upfront costs.

While we bought the Gizmo Watches brand new, they’re getting passed down to our younger kids so we can avoid the fixed costs plus any activation costs. We just renamed the watch!

When the time comes for our son to get a phone, he’ll get one of the ones we are using.

It’s an iPhone 12, so it’s 3+ years old, but it works just fine.

It’s not like he’s getting a Blackberry. 😂

What do you think about our plan? Is it sensible? Foolish? It’s a work in progress, so let me know what you think!

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

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RedPocket Mobile Review

Red Pocket Mobile is a discount cell phone service provider with a unique feature: the option to choose the network you want to operate on and switch networks when needed. But how does it compare to other leading discount providers, like Tello, Ting, and Visible? Find out in this RedPocket Mobile review.

About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools, everything I use) is Empower Personal Dashboard, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Katrin
8 days ago

One of the toughest things about limiting your kids phone access is the social pressure. One of the moms in our elementary school introduced: https://www.waituntil8th.org/take-the-pledge. This helps other parents know that their kid will not be alone in not having /smartphones/apps in middle school.

This very much aligns w/ your “tentative plan” of not introducing a smartphone until high school. In case any of your readers want to start the “Wait until 8th Pledge” in their schools.

Lucie Ashraf
8 days ago

Phone strategy for kids (Fortunately, things were much simpler when my kids were growing up; we all used Nokia.) and tips on simplifying your money (Not as easy as one might think, given all the options we have today.) contain useful information. Thanks!

M. Johnson
7 days ago

As a parent of an 11th grader without a phone, I enjoyed reading your article. I wish all parents could read your article. Many of my friends regretted giving cell phones to their middle school children because they couldn’t get them off of the phone.
P.S. I love your Verizon hack! It saved us a lot of $$.

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