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Cut the cost of children's gadgets

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Kids have grand expectations about what sort of mobiles and computers their parents should buy them. But the reality is that they will quickly outgrow many of these items, so it doesn't make sense to spend big on something they'll use for only a short time. Also they can easily be broken, lost or stolen, making it even more imperative not to splash out.

For parents who foot the bill for phones and computers, plus plans, the good news is that prices are coming down while performance improves. For example, a decent smartphone on the Android system costs $30 to $40, making it a throwaway item, says Joseph Hanlon, editor of WhistleOut.

Kids usually need a portable computer for school. Public schools often have a bring-your-own policy and private schools typically supply state-of-the art devices from Year 9 and ask parents to pay. Usually public schools have a list of suitable devices and software, as well as a partnership with a supplier. BYO devices need covers, anti-virus software and insurance.

Often the device that a school wants is different from the one already owned at home and this situation has caused some parents to complain about the cost, particularly if there are a number of children in the family. Choice magazine says you don't have to spend a fortune to get a good, basic laptop, or even a hybrid model that doubles as a touchscreen tablet. It recently tested 10 laptops ranging in price from $272 to $803, with nine models under $600.

You need a light laptop as kids have back-breaking backpacks already. It should be easy and intuitive to use with a decent battery life, USB and clear screen. If you are not sure about what to buy, don't rush in. Check with the school to make sure you have all the information.

Share mobile phone plans

Family-sharing mobile phone plans are a great way for parents to save money. They allow you to pool data instead of paying for separate high-gigabyte plans for each person. This means that if kids tend to use more gigabytes than their parents, you can spread the usage. Family-sharing plans are offered by all the big providers such as Telstra, Vodafone and Optus.

Joseph Hanlon, editor of the comparison site WhistleOut, says Vodaphone offers a control mechanism that allows parents to select one of the mobile numbers in the plan and restrict the data to that phone number. This is a terrific feature if your children download a lot of video and stream music. You can restrict their usage so bills don't blow out. Or if they don't do their chores around the house, suggests Hanlon, you can cut off their connection to the internet until they do. "It is a great feature that other providers need to introduce," he says. You can get a data-sharing plan even if there are two family members, says Hanlon. But how many gigabytes of data do kids need?

It is easy for them to run up plenty of gigabytes each month. Hanlon says music streaming uses around 1 megabyte for a minute, which can amount to 60MB on an hour-long trip home from school. Over a month that is 1.2 gigabytes, so kids need a plan with 2GB or 3GB. If they do run over their data allocation, you want the next gigabyte to be cheap. For example, amaysim, Optus and Vodafone typically charge $10 for the next gigabyte.

One of the biggest choices for parents to make is whether to get a prepaid plan that has a set limit on data. A downside is that kids can run out of cover at an inconvenient time when they need to be in contact and parents need to recharge the account. It is best to choose a prepaid plan that offers unlimited text messages and calls. To save money, Hanlon suggests avoiding the major brands. "You get the same services and pay a lot less," he says. Boutique phone companies are on the same networks as the big brands, ensuring good coverage and fast data speed. For example, amaysim is on Optus while Aldi and Boost are on Telstra.

Boutique carriers can offer great features too. Hanlon recommends Aldi's analytical feature that looks at a customer's phone usage and tells them if the plan suits their needs.

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Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
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