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.