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Why so many financially independent adults are still on their parents’ phone plans

It’s not because millennials are lazy.

Even if the woman pictured here can afford that gorgeous apartment, there’s a good chance she might still be on her parents’ phone plan.
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Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Nearly every time I’ve visited home over the past few years, the same subject is brought up: the fact that my dad still pays my phone bill. It’s not really a point of contention, and never is my tenuous status on the Jennings Verizon family plan actually in jeopardy. It’s more like a running joke, if we define the word “joke” as “a fact that is mostly neutral.”

But while I do feel a bit guilty about this — I could theoretically afford it if I had to — I absolutely dread the day I’m told to go down to the Verizon store and get a plan of my own. And so over Thanksgiving, I struck a deal: Because my older sister had stayed on my parents’ plan until she got married, I decided that the same should be true for me.

Fortunately, that will not be happening for a long while. But even if I were getting married tomorrow, I wouldn’t be the only millennial who has achieved many of the markers of financial independence yet still enjoys the benefits of their parents’ phone plan. In fact, it wouldn’t even be close.

Today, tons of adults in their 20s and 30s — around 53 percent, according to one study — still linger on the same cellphone plans they’ve been on since high school or middle school, the ones their parents signed up for in the 2000s when kids and teens owning personal cellphones became standard. And despite the fact that they’ve moved on in other ways — covering their own bills, paying off student loans, contributing to retirement accounts, getting married, even having children — both parents and the adult children whose data usage they’re paying for are reluctant to change the status quo.

This provides a very useful point for anyone attempting to argue that millennials are uniquely lazy. A 2015 issue of Glamour declared that it was “umm, not ok if you’re 26 and your parents still pay your cell phone bill.” But according to many actual 26-year-olds, it’s more than fine. For some in financially precarious situations, it’s a lifesaver. And in nearly all cases, people were well aware of the privilege they had in having a family who could afford to foot the bill.

It’s also a perennial topic — back in 2015, Slate declared that it was totally fine to remain on your parents’ phone plan as a 20-something, while in 2016 NerdWallet conducted a study that proved the practice actually saved everyone money. In 2017, Mel Magazine came to the same conclusion.

Over the course of speaking to 18 financially independent millennials between the ages of 22 and 36 who are still on their parents’ phone plan, it became clear that even though people’s individual reasonings differed somewhat, the same themes kept bubbling up. Some were obvious (it’s cheaper for everyone to have multiple lines on a single bill), but others weren’t — like the multiple women who described the desire to pay their phone bill as their parents still wanting to see them as “their little girl.” Others (myself included) didn’t even know much their phone bill cost their parents, while some were actively trying to get off the family plan and cut the final cord.

Why phone companies make it easier for millennials to mooch

The easiest answer here is that in most cases, for those using one of the four major phone carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — having multiple phone lines on a single bill makes the entire bill cheaper than if every user had their own individual line. Nearly everyone I spoke to cited this as one of the main reasons they were still on their parents’ phone bill.

Why do these companies offer family plan benefits? “For carriers, it’s about the lock-in of having multiple people giving them business, even if they’re losing a few dollars compared to what they’d make if everyone had an individual plan,” explains Chris Welch, an editor at The Verge. Each line, then, is another customer who isn’t giving their business to a competitor.

Even if folks did want to leave their family plans, though, the conditions often stipulate that the price for the rest of the users left on the plan will go up. And in some cases, the phone plans are so confusing that nobody even knows what the deal is at all. Kofie Yeboah, a 23-year-old social media producer living in Washington, DC, says, “It’s cheaper if we all stick together on one plan. That’s what the Verizon guy told us — I think. That was a long time [ago].” Folks I spoke to reported averages of around $50 per line on their family plan, with some plans with four or five lines topping more than $300.

There’s also the fact that people are upgrading their phones much less frequently than they used to. Until recently, most smartphones in the US were subsidized with a two-year contract, and when companies like Apple or Samsung released a new phone, improvements to the technology were generally pretty significant.

But now that neither of these things is the case — major carriers don’t offer two-year contracts, and the new iPhone probably isn’t all that much different from your two-year-old one — spending upward of $1,000 on a marginally cooler device isn’t an investment people are as willing to make. (For proof, simply consider Apple’s recently tumbling stock.) Buying a new phone was once a time to reevaluate the details of one’s carrier contract, but now it’s an event that happens much less frequently.

A woman, presumably with a job, who also presumably may not pay her own cellphone bill.
Getty Images/Westend61

But there’s no rule in “family plans” that stipulates that groups of people sharing the same phone bill have to actually be related, which is why many people have banded together with groups of friends to share the cost of a single phone bill. Ashley, a 26-year-old independent consultant in Philadelphia who asked me not to use her last name, says she’s been asked by a dozen friends to form a family plan but chose to stay on her parents’. “I had my fair share of chasing down various roommates’ utility payments and did not want to open up another avenue to the possibility of dissolving friendship,” she explains.

Millennials are struggling, and phone bills are expensive

The other relatively obvious explanation is that phone plans, particularly those for an individual line on a single bill, can be wildly expensive. Even though all the people I spoke to described themselves as mostly financially independent, the potential cost of a phone bill was far from a throwaway expense, particularly for freelancers and those without a stable income.

Jessica Suerth, a 23-year-old journalist in Phoenix, pays her own rent, food, and gas, but says that anything helps. “I wish I could be completely financially independent by now, but I am working to save up some money to be okay in the long run,” she says. “My parents don’t mind.”

Chelsea Howard, a 25-year-old freelance writer in Philadelphia, echoes Suerth, and points out the necessity of having a solid phone plan for her career. “I really can’t afford to have a phone myself, but it’s pretty crucial to how I’ve adapted to being a freelance writer,” she explains. “I’m either always writing on it when I’m out or using it to look for new freelance work. But I definitely don’t have the extra $53 a month right now.”

“To be honest, I haven’t made any changes [to my phone plan] because I’m not saving any money right now, and if they’re willing to pay for it, then I’m willing to let them,” adds Morgan Randall, a 28-year-old phlebotomist in Seattle, of her parents.

And while most of the people I spoke to cited some degree of guilt or embarrassment about continuing to let their parents pay for them — “I feel weird! I’m 31! But clearly not weird enough to demand to be removed,” said Brooklyn-based editor Tiffany Yannetta, formerly of Racked — others defended the increasingly common practice.

“I don’t think anyone under 30 should be embarrassed about getting a little financial support wherever they can get it,” says Josh, a 26-year-old in DC who didn’t want his last name used. “The job and housing markets don’t make city living particularly easy, so any sort of monetary cushion you can get should be welcome.”

One 2017 study of Federal Reserve data, for instance, showed that millennials earned an average of 20 percent less than baby boomers at the same age.

Plus, there’s always someone with even more money than you who’s still mooching off their parents. Aisha Hakim, a 30-year-old art director in San Francisco, was kicked off her parents’ phone plan because they couldn’t afford it at the time and is now on her husband’s parents’.

“Having to be financially independent of my family so young, to me this just feels like an incredible luxury,” she says. “It’s a minor relief from the constant onslaught of adulthood. My brother-in-law is a lawyer making twice what [my husband] makes, and he’s still on it.”

Phone plans often bring up all kinds of feelings

Mostly, though, people expressed gratitude toward their parents for footing the phone bill, and many people who wrote to me were concerned about sounding like a “spoiled millennial.” They knew they were lucky to have extra financial support from parents, no matter how small, because so many others don’t, or are paying for their parents’ phones.

“When I was a teenager, I would find any reason to convince my parents that they needed to buy something for me,” says Augustus Rachels, a 22-year-old motion graphics designer in Tampa, Florida. “I’m happy that they’re making my life a little easier yet feel guilty because I’m taking money I don’t need to take, and so few people are lucky enough to have their parents support them financially the way mine have.”

This millennial man may be able to afford adorable trips to national parks, but his parents won’t charge him for the phone bill.
Getty Images/Westend61

Adrienne Girard, the 36-year-old copy chief at Oprah’s O Magazine, says that even though she sends her mom $50 every month for her portion of the bill, she still feels guilty about being on it. “It’s somewhat embarrassing to still be on my mom’s plan, but am I really going to go out of my way to get another bill when there’s the mortgage, the property taxes, all the insurance, the cable, the EZ Pass, the utilities, the credit cards?”

Since Adrienne’s mom doesn’t have Venmo, she uses PayPal to reimburse her, but for millennials whose parents are deeply skeptical of payment apps, they’ve had to find workarounds to express their thanks. “My mom doesn’t have Venmo or any other way for me to digitally send money her way,” says Sarah ElSayed, a 25-year-old in Brooklyn who owns a cannabis-focused creative marketing agency. “I try to make up for it in other ways, like buying her lunch when we see each other and bringing her different kinds of CBD products to experiment with.”

Yet others say that not only do their parents make it difficult to repay them, but that their parents actually like paying their phone bill. “I have tried probably three times to get off [my dad’s] plan and get my own,” says Diana, a 29-year-old Los Angeles-based social media manager who asked that I not include her last name. “He gets very upset [and says] he can take care of it. A part of me feels like it’s his way of feeling like he’s still taking care of his ‘little girl.’”

“In some way, I feel like for my parents, keeping me on the plan is the last metaphorical tie to me being their ‘little girl,’” echoes Rose Collins, a 25-year-old restaurant marketing professional in DC. “Same goes for me — I’m a full-fledged adult, but I weirdly like having that tiny shred of being a ‘dependent’ kid in me.”

Josh Kelly, a 26-year-old PR manager in Virginia, says he struck a deal with his parents wherein he’d pay back his share of the phone bill, but that they don’t push it. “I’ve asked my parents about sending them the money I owe them, but they kick the can, saying, ‘We can deal with it next month.’ They typically say it’s not a big deal and they are happy to be able to ‘help me out.’”

There’s also the difference in value that millennials and their older parents place in making phone calls in the first place. Oscar (not his real name), 25, works in tech in Budapest, while his mom lives in Oslo, and he says there’s a big generational difference between the hour-long phone calls his parents make to their friends and the fact that he’d never think to call a friend. “The main reason I am still on my parents’ phone plan is that they view it as a vital form of communication and I don’t,” he says. “They know, and correctly so, that if it weren’t for them, I’d just not have a reachable phone outside of work.”

So if all these parents and the millennials they support are totally cool with the system as is, what’s stopping millennials from staying on their parents’ phone plans forever? For those without an official arrangement, like my parents’ mutual agreement about my wedding day being my expiration date, that might be the case.

According to Mark Krugman, a 34-year-old IT manager in Columbus, Ohio, the answer is probably yes. “I guess I’ll have to get off it when they die,” he says, “but hopefully that’s decades in the future.”

For one millennial, however, the time is nigh. MJ, a 27-year-old statistician in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says that during Christmas dinner, his parents declared that after 2019, he and his brother and sister, both of whom are married with children, would have to start paying their fair share of the phone bill.

He doesn’t mind, though. “My dad’s retired and my mom isn’t far from retirement herself,” he says. “They’ve started taking many vacations together with friends, so the savings from the phone bill — $1,800 per year — will go a long way toward that. It’s time they enjoyed themselves, because the kids are alright.”

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