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Kids need to pay own cell-phone tabs

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One of the most annoying commercials I've seen on TV recently features a cheeky 12-year-old who has run up a huge cell-phone bill text-messaging her "BFF" Jill, and thinks it's "SNF" that her mother threatens to take her phone away.

The solution, says the service provider, is for Mom to spend even more money so that cheeky daughter can be rewarded with unlimited text messages (which I'm convinced are a ploy to get kids to run up their bills).

How to pay for kids' cell-phone charges is yet another financial challenge for parents to wrestle with. And as an expert on kids and money, it's my job to advise them on how to meet the challenge. But when it comes to cell-phone bills, I defer to my husband, John.

In our household, we pay for a basic family cell-phone plan for the kids (John and I use prepaid phones). The kids pay for their own phones, plus any overage charges, and Dad monitors the bill.

When they signed a contract two years ago, Dad had the three kids — two then in college, one in high school — shop for their own plan at a reasonable price. Dad never had trouble collecting from them, even from youngest child Peter (usually the worst offender). And when the contract recently came up for renewal, we cut loose our oldest, John, who's now working and living on his own.

So smoothly do things usually run that I was taken aback when the cell-phone bill arrived a few weeks ago and my normally calm husband turned into one of those apoplectic parents in cell-phone commercials.

Peter was shocked that he had gone $56 over on his text messages (he blamed incoming messages from his friends). And before he was dropped from the plan, John had run up $90 in calls to the U.S. while on a trip to Canada.

Dad slapped the bill up on the fridge with notations of who owed how much. Peter paid his tab (actually, he "big-manned" it up to 60 bucks) and elected to pay for unlimited text messages himself to avoid future overruns. John's $90 check came in the mail.

The lesson here — aside from confirming my bias against text messages — is that kids need to come up with their own money for their own expenses. And parents need to make them follow through.

You don't have to track every nickel and dime. But kids need to have skin in the game. As I always say, children will spend unlimited amounts of money as long as it's yours. When their cash is on the line, it's a whole different story. And that's as true in the digital age as it ever was.

Janet Bodnar is deputy editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and the author of "Raising Money Smart Kids" (Kaplan, $17.95) and "Money Smart Women" (Kaplan, $15.95). Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com