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Family Plans Forever

Why millennials are still on their parents’ cell-phone plans

Jeremy turned 15 a week after 9/11, the event that inspired his mom to buy him a Samsung. The same was true for Katie, who was in middle school when the Twin Towers were hit and received a red Nokia from her parents shortly thereafter. It was on a cell phone that passengers on the hijacked planes were able to call loved ones and the authorities, and how in the chaotic aftermath, many Manhattan residents tried to reach one another.

Both Jeremy and Katie were put on their parent’s cell phone contracts as part of a family plan, a financial incentive to add more phones to a contract and bind children to their parents forever in the name of a low-cost monthly bill.

Sixteen years later, they still haven’t left.

Throughout the early aughts, more and more kids would join family plans so their parents could reach them in situations as serious as an emergency or as mundane as after a trip to the movie theater. And to this day — even as these children have reached their 30s and beyond — they’ve never gotten off. Nearly half of all smartphone owners with adult children over the age of 18 say their kids are still on their cell phone plan. And many of these parents still foot the bill, even though their kids can afford to pay their own way now.

The reason to still be contractually tethered as a family unit is simple: It’s cheaper for everyone involved. Many have been grandfathered into an old plan — ones that existed right when data usage on phones became a thing and was still a luxury — at a ridiculously low rate. For example, there’s the $25 a month plan for unlimited data that one family I spoke with locked into when they bought the original iPhone in 2007.

So staying on is a win-win for everyone, especially for the family members who find themselves not having to pay a phone bill every month.

You could read this as another example of millennial laziness and co-dependence with their Boomer parents, but the generation’s relationship to autonomy is complex: They don’t see support from their parents and self-reliance as mutually exclusive. For instance, a study that looked at college-attending millennials aged 23 to 26 found that while 40 percent rely on their parents for some form of financial support, they’re simultaneously working and experimenting with different career paths. “I see it as [millennials] adapting to the world as it is today, not as it was when their parents came of age,” the author of the study told Forbes. “Taken together, the results paint a picture of changing goals among young adults when it comes to careers, notably trading increased income for aspects related to personal values.”

“I feel like it’s widely accepted that people are on family plans because life is expensive, and if we can shave anything off our expenses, go for it,” says Sarah, 29, adding that a lot of her friends get help from their parents in similarly non-direct ways. Meanwhile, Anna and her parents joke that they’re spending her inheritance on her cell phone: “They very much have a mindset of wanting to provide and not see me struggle financially,” she explains. “But they expect me to save well now so I have a safety net later in life.”

Many of the millennials I talked to could afford to pay their bills, but their parents never ask for reimbursement because the cost is negligible. Katie, 27, is still on her parents’ plan, and considers how allowing her parents to pay for her cell phone impacts her status as a dependent: “Is it financial independence when you can afford it on your own, but they choose to give it to you as a gift?”

Tony, 26, adds, “It’s the same plan our whole family has been on since I was 16 so I think inertia has kept it in place more than anything.”

There is, though, always the risk of being grounded from the family plan. “When [my mom] gets mad, she threatens to [kick me off] and/or tells me to get my own plan, but they’re always empty threats,” says Jeremy, 31. Sarah had to pay her own way for a few months when she was 18 and got a belly-button piercing on 4/20. And when 25-year-old Corey’s parents got divorced, his dad bought him the Verizon touchscreen phone they had on Gossip Girl, only to return it when Corey threw a party at his dad’s apartment (earning the wrath of his Gossip Girl-loving father). (Now back on his mom’s plan, Corey actually believes his mother is scamming him, as he pays her $100 a month as reimbursement, even though the bill is $130 total.)

But these are the exceptions. Pretty much everyone else believes there’s something deeper to the contractual bond, that families like being on them together for reasons greater than money. “There’s some sense that we’re all connected as a family — that even though my parents are in their mid-60s and my sister and I are 32 and 35, we all share this one thing that doesn’t seem coincidentally related,” says Alana, a writer who recently bought her own house and paid off $100,000 in student debt, but is still on her family’s cell phone plan. “It’s about communication, staying in touch, being part of the same unit even though the four of us live in three different states.”

Plus, as both millennials and baby boomers age, the family plan dynamic is becoming flipped. About a month ago, for instance, Travis, 25, figured out it would be cheaper to switch carriers and start a new family plan in his name, including the phones of his wife, mom, stepfather and younger brother — a move he considered “a win-win.” The deal was that his mother was to pay him by the 15th of every month, something he doesn’t actually see happening.

“Even if [my mom] never pays me, the additional cost of the other lines is relatively small,” he explains. “It isn’t uncommon for my wife and I to spend the same amount on dinner and drinks,” he says. “She was pretty much a single mom that raised three kids, so paying for her cell phone service is the least I can do.”