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Best Cell Phone/Plan Savings Today

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Since this blog is older than dirt (okay, will you settle for the iPhone?), I've covered a lot of ways on how to save money on cell phone and cell phone plans.

When I started the blog, the best deal (assuming you had coverage) was Sprint SERO, where you could get a great plan on a major carrier with top speed unlimited data for $25. I had that plan for years and just shook my head when people paid twice that, because they didn't shop around. Alas, Sprint got wise to it and if you wanted the latest phone, the Palm Pre, they pushed you to a $69 plan because it used a lot more data. Prices steadily rose to the point where my wife joined Sprint (it was the best coverage where we lived) and paid $120 a month for unlimited voice, data, and texting.

If you wanted a good phone, that was pretty much par for the course. Then Virgin Mobile came out with a low-end Android phone that you could have on a $25. I considered switching then, but the phones offered weren't good enough to give up my trusty Pre. When HP said it was going to stop making new devices running Palm's OS it was time to move on. Fortunately Virgin Mobile had a middle of the road Motorola Triumph that fit in its $25 plan. I ran with that for a year before I decided that the combination of Android and a phone without a keyboard wasn't working for me. I actually paid more money per month, $45 to go to obsolete hardware, the Pre 3, on an obsolete OS because it was much better for me than anything else.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I've looked through a lot of cell phone plans over the years to find a sweet spot between cheap and functional. One universal truth is almost is never about how much you spend on the phone, but how much you spend on the cell phone plan.

When my wife was on the $120/month Sprint plan she paid around $99 for an HTC Evo. That's nothing compared to the $2880 she was going to spend over the two year contract. That was the driving force to get me to the $25 Virgin Mobile plan (which no longer exists by the way). The cost of $600 over two years is a cool $2280 in my pocket. Who cares if the phone cost me $299 when I'm going to be saving $2000, right?

Alas the Virgin Mobile price has gone up from the $25. We are still grandfathered in, but we can't get any new phones, which means no 4G data and being stuck with a phone that was mid-level in 2011. I no longer feel it is in the sweet spot because the functionality now in late 2013 is so much better.

So what's the best cell phone/plan value today? It's going to be different for different people who use cell phones in different ways, but I believe I found something that gives you almost all the functionality at a fraction of the price.

Since we established the carrier plan is where the bulk of the cost comes in, it makes sense to start there. I've looked at a lot of carriers and the major players (Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon) seem to all charge around $80-$100/month for voice/text/data... and that data is typically limited. That's a huge jump from $25 and personally, I'm not willing to around $1500 over two years for the functionality of the latest phones.

Fortunately, there are some cheap pre-paid carriers (and they represent the best deals). My favorite of them is Straight Talk, which has a partnership with Wal-Mart. For $45 a month you get unlimited voice/text and 2GB of 4G LTE data. That's LTE on AT&T's network which is pretty good. If you need more data than that you are probably going to have to look elsewhere, because after that they can throttle your speeds down to 2G networks... yikes! 2GB is a good amount of data as long as you aren't streaming music and long videos. There are other carriers around the same price as Straight Talk, but I didn't see them offering 4G LTE on AT&T's network, or they had some other catch. That said, I'll be the first to say that Straight Talk's customer service is terrible. Fortunately, I don't have to deal with them very often.

The beauty of Straight Talk's $45 plan is that you can bring your own unlocked phone. The question becomes what's a good unlocked phone? There are plenty of cheap unlocked phones, but at that point you might as well stick with the Motorola Triumph, right? Plus we've established that the cost of the phone is the smaller part of the overall bill, so splurging a little bit doesn't hurt. Unfortunately it seems like all the best unlocked phones cost about $650 and more. In fact, an unlocked 32GB iPhone 5S will set you back $750. However, you can get a stylish case and some screen protectors for under $20.)

Finally, you can save a little more on Straight Talk's plan by buying a full year at once, bringing your cost to around $41 per month. So if you were to pair this with the top line 32GB Nexus 5, you'd get a phone with top of the line screen resolution, processing processor, and storage for $1,383 over two years. That's less than half what my wife was paying for her Evo a few years ago. Half-price, better network, and a quantum leap in phone technology? Not only that, but you aren't locked into a contract and can sell your phone on Ebay and use that money towards an upgrade whenever you feel like it. What's not to like, right?

Honorable Mention: If that price is a little steep and you can deal with a locked phone, Republic Wireless has an interesting deal. A Motorola X phone (in my opinion a shade worse than the Nexus 5, but still a very good phone according to reviews) for $299 paired with either a $25 plan (3G) or a $40 plan (4G). If 3G is good for you, $15/mo is nothing to sneeze at. I feel like if you are going to get 4G, you are better off with Straight Talk for about the same price, because you can move your unlocked phone to another network at a later date, have a wider audience to resell it to, and AT&T's 4G coverage seems better than Sprint's.

Posted on November 21, 2013.

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15 Responses to “Best Cell Phone/Plan Savings Today”

  1. Andy Hough says:

    I’m grandfathered in on the Virgin Mobile $25 a month plan and I was able to switch to a new phone this year. The new phone is still outdated compared to what’s available now, but it does what I need and I’m not willing to give up my $25 a month plan to get a fancier phone.

  2. Sean says:

    I use a Nokia Lumia 521 on t-mobile. The phone is dirt cheap off contract (under $100 now on amazon) and probably the equivalent or better than the triumph. $30 a month, I think 5gb 4g data but only 100 minutes a month. If you need to have the latest niche apps it’s not for you, but I’ve ran with it for about 5 months or so now and it’s solid.

    • Lazy Man says:

      Hmmm Andy, I thought they wouldn’t let you upgrade without giving up the $25 plan. If you can still get a middle-of-the-road phone for now, that’s probably still a great deal. Unfortunately new people can’t get that price, so for a $35 plan, the question becomes would you pay another $6-10 for unlimited talk and an expanded LTE with AT&T. I think most people will pay that tiny bit more the better service and option to use top phones.

      I should have mentioned how cheap the Lumia’s are now. I looked into the T-mobile $30/mo. plan, but the 100 minutes is tough for most people (though there are some apps that help you use data for phone calls). Also, I don’t know where T-mobile is with their 1900 band and the LTE on it. One my previous phone, I had Straight Talk’s plan that used T-Mobile’s HSPA+ and it doesn’t compare to what I’m getting with LTE.

  3. Cathie says:

    Thanks for this info. We are seriously considering Straight Talk. I am SO tired of Verizon. They do have the best coverage in our area, but our phone bill is outrageous. I refused my upgrade on principle last year. I was eligible for a “free” phone, which would have locked me in for another 2 years AND they wanted to charge me a $30 “upgrade” fee. I spoke to customer service, who agreed with me that it was a ridiculous charge, but did not offer to do anything about it. If the phone had cost me $30 I wouldn’t have been upset. I realize it’s all semantics, but to give me a free phone, lock me into another contract, AND charge me for it was just too much for this rebellious soul to take. So I bought a replacement Blackberry (mine bit the dust) for $20 on ebay, and I’m on a month to month basis until my husband’s contract expires. (we are on the family plan, and my daughter’s contract expires in March, but my husband’s contract isn’t up until September. Then it’ll be See Ya, Verizon!
    With all this research, you’ll have to change your moniker!

  4. Andy Hough says:

    You can still get a new phone and stay on the $25 plan, it just can’t be one of the newer models. The phone I got this year was still a nice upgrade from my previous phone.

    When I do get forced out of the $25 plan I’ll probably downgrade to a plan with Republic Wireless or Ting. I do like the phone and plan I have now so I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time.

    • Lazy Man says:

      Had I known you could still upgrade to newer phones, I might have kept the plan. Still, I don’t think I’ll be too upset because my wife goes over the 300 minutes from time to time and the slower speeds in my area (no Sprint 4G for me) is worth the money for me.

  5. Ian says:

    I gotta put a plug in for Ting. Been using ’em for a year now, and love it.

    They’re coverage is a mix of Sprint and Verizon. If there’s a Sprint tower available it’ll use that, if not you can ‘roam’ on Verizon. For data it uses Sprint only.

    But what’s even better is that they don’t do ‘plans’, just ‘rates’. If you use a wee little bit, that’s all you get charged for; voice, text, or data. If you use more for a month, you pay more. Its a sliding scale that puts you in different ‘buckets’ of usage and cost. Works GREAT.

    Usage example: I’m usually a bit under 100 minutes, maybe 20 texts, and usually ~300mb data. Total monthly cost $31 before taxes (~$5).

    If you can work ok with Sprint data coverage, I really think its the best way to go. There’s a few times/year that I travel in the boonies of central Oregon; lots of places with zero cell signal at all, but if there is any its usually Verizon, rather nice to have voice (and text message) coverage out there, but without paying the outrageous Verizon rates.

    OK, yeah… you have to buy a phone outright, but really, that’s the cheaper way to do it.

    And for a bit extra, if you want to give Ting a try, here’s a link for $25 credit just for starting out with them: $25 Ting Credit (and for full disclosure, that gets me some credit too)

    Ok, one last bit… you mentioned that Straight Talk’s customer service is terrible? Well… Ting’s service is downright amazing.

    • Lazy Man says:

      So it looks like Ting is pretty similar to Virgin Mobile with regard to coverage… Sprint and not very good LTE coverage. I like the idea, but I feel more comfortable knowing that I have unlimited talk and texts for around ~$43. I don’t have to worry about using too much data, which gets pricy quick. I like quality customer service, but I find it is necessary so rarely that I don’t want to pay a lot extra for it. (In this case, it would be cheaper, but I’d be giving up LTE service.)

  6. […] Best Cell Phone/Plan Savings Today Lazy Man gives you some tips on what phones and plans to pick to start the New Year off right. […]

  7. H says:

    I’m looking to switch phones as my AT&T bill is sky high. I was thinking of Republic Wireless but I’m not sure I want to spend $299 for a phone that will only work through them. Straight Talk sounds great so I’ll investigate it further. Thanks!

  8. Evan says:

    Just having this convo with The Wife. Our family plan w/Sprint is $147 after taxes. This provides us with unlimited data, text and something stupid like 2000mins (mobile to mobile not charged against that number).

    Seems high but it doesn’t seem like I am getting much lower than $75 a person. That $45 number is without tax, right? So it is more like $55 or what not. At that point for $20 a month why get hit with a more expensive phone?

    I think the key to winning the battle against mobile is a family plan with 2 couples splitting the cost. The incremental cost of adding someone to my plan is nothing, so why not allow 2 or 3 to jump on with me? Split that same unlimited data/text and mins that no one is touching?

    • Lazy Man says:

      From this thread it looks like taxes and fees take most people from $45 to $49. However, if you buy 6 months at a time you can reduce the $45 to around $42.50. A year gets you nearly to $41. So if you are comparing it to a service that locks you in for two years, it would be about $45 including fees, and you’d get the option of leaving in a year. At $30 per month, that’s $360 per year or $720 over two years. I think it’s still a little better to pay $349 for Nexus 5.

      I really like not being locked into a phone for a couple of years. The technology is still moving very fast, but innovation is starting to slow down a lot. If a Galaxy S5 comes out tomorrow that gives me a feature that I think is of great value to me, I can sell my Nexus 5 for probably close to what I paid for it and put that money towards the new phone. I think Sprint has a program like T-Mobile’s Jump that will allow you to get a new phone faster. I did a quick search and it seems like it is called “One-Up” and it costs $27 a month for the device? It got a little confusing because I don’t know how that would work with a family plan. If that’s $27 on top of the $75 per person that you are paying now, it would be like paying for a phone twice.

      It looks like Sprint LTE is mostly available around big cities, which doesn’t extend to my suburb. AT&T’s seems to be much better.

  9. […] Best Cell Phone/Plan Savings Today – This is a pretty comprehensive read on how you should think about your cell phone plan! -Lazy Man and Money […]

  10. […] I don't see the value. I still recommend a Nexus 5 ($349-$399) on Straight Talk ($45/mo.) as the best cell phone and plan combination available. It may continue to be my top recommendation until someone grafts the good kind of Firefly button […]

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