The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone

bikers on smartphones

I may have been the last person in Philadelphia with a flip phone, because I was unsure of the cheapest way to have a smartphone.

I was mocked at work and on the street.  Little kids driving their big-wheels would stop to stare at me (and take pictures with their smartphones).  My neighbor thought it was a social services phone that can only call the hospital. My flip phone caused car accidents (because drivers would see me using it and laugh uncontrollably). When my wife called to me she would ask me if I was alone – not because she wanted to say something romantic but because she was concerned about my dignity.

But I stood against the tide. I didn’t need a smartphone for work, found them annoying, and thought the data costs unreasonable.  I had my small tablet, a decent camera, my GPS device, and my good-ol’ flip phone (which was indestructible, cheap to replace, and only needed charging once a week).

Every time I thought about getting a smartphone, my research on the cheapest way to have a smartphone was inconclusive.

old-fashioned phone
“Yes, I am satisfied with my current service.”

Finally, a friend who switches phones and plans compulsively clued me in to the cheapest way to have a smartphone.

Years of dissatisfaction with phone companies

Since I don’t really like talking on the phone, I have always been looking for ways to save on communication. For years my wife had a smartphone, and I had a basic phone.  I didn’t enjoy dealing with Verizon’s nebulous pricing and was frustrated that they they would not activate a smartphone with no data plan (I had read that AT&T would do this for a while but then stopped.)

Even though we had a Verizon discount through my wife’s employment, I wanted to see if I could do better. I bought a cheap, unlocked, basic phone and switched to Consumer Cellular (you know, the one in the AARP magazine), but was still stuck with extra devices. On the plus side, the phone I found on amazon had an FM radio and terrestrial TV antennae.  Believe me, this model got me a lot of attention from the ladies!

weirdest phone ever
Watching local TV on my phone with a terrestrial antennae? Yes, please.

When a friend told me about his new solution, Google’s Project Fi, I had finally found the cheapest way to have a smartphone. (Thanks, Tony.)  I could have a smartphone, clear billing, and simply leave the data turned off.  I haven’t looked back.  I pay $20 a month plus $5.72 in taxes and stuff.  This was less than I was paying with Consumer Cellular for a basic phone.  I usually only turn on the data when I am killing time or getting directions.  When I do turn on data, it only charges me for what I use.  I may pay $27.32 instead of $25.72. If I can convert my wife, I will pay even less (five dollars less for additional lines).

Are you right for the cheapest way to have a smartphone?

We are going to talk about the two cheapest ways to have a smartphone: TracFone and Google’s project Fi. However, there are some limitations that will be deal-breakers for some. Ask yourself some important questions before deciding what smartphone options are realistic for you:

  1. How important is having a particular smartphone model?
  2. How often do you travel internationally?
  3. Am I going to pay for the phone up front or have the costs dispersed into my monthly bill?
  4. Am I have heavy data user?
  5. Do I call or text a lot?
  6. Is wifi generally available to me?
  7. Do I live in or frequent areas with spotty reception?
  8. Am I going to want to insure my device?
  9. Is electronic billing acceptable to me?
people looking at smartphones
Creative Commons photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

The two cheapest ways to have a smartphone

Cheapest way to have a smartphone: Google’s Project Fi

This was the solution that my friend told me about, and I love it. My bill is $20 a month plus $5.72 in taxes and stuff.  I usually only turn on the data when I am killing time or getting directions.  When I do turn on data, it only charges me for what I use.  I may pay $27.32 instead of $25.72. If I can convert my wife, I will pay even less.  I can make calls through Wi-Fi and have the combined coverage of three networks.

ProjectFi-640x268

PROS of smartphoning with Project Fi

  • Cheap (and clear) billing
  • Easy and cheap international use (Just use it, and don’t worry about it.  No notifications or changes required.)
  • Easily turn data off and on.
  • Share data with another device.  They will send you the SIM card for free, but make sure the device is on the list.  They are just happy to have you using more data.
  • Seamlessly synced to your google stuff

CONS of smartphoning with Project Fi

  • Automatic billing only
  • Paperless billing only
  • Coverage not as good as Verizon (on a recent trip to Canada, my wife’s Verizon phone won easily). Consider where you live.
  • Very limited phone selection (When I signed up the cheapest phone was the Nexus 5x.  Now the cheapest new phone is the Moto X4 at $324)
  • Android only

TIPS for cheap smartphoning with Project Fi

Pay for your smartphone up front.  If you can’t pay for it up front, you probably should not be buying it.  Paying up front will keep you from spending more than you should.  If you pay for your phone up front, you will probably take better care of it.

Buy a cheaper smartphone.  Now that Project Fi has been around a while, there are older phones that will work on the network.  The Project Fi website states, “Project Fi is available on the Pixel, Android One Moto X4, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 6.” These must be the North American versions of these models.  Click this link to see more detailed information about compatible devices.

As I write this, you can buy a refurbished (by LG) Nexus 5x for $150 on amazon.

Don’t buy smartphone insurance. I am a strong believer that most insurance is a scam, and smartphone insurance certainly is a scam.  Project Fi will sell you device insurance for $5 a month plus a $80-100 deductible depending on the device.  You are much better off buying a cheaper smartphone and buying a cover.  Un-filed claims are never denied.

Use a sim card to share your data with a compatible tablet.  For example, you could give a compatible device and the sim card to your mom so she could use your data when she was travelling.

Take advantage of calls through Wi-Fi: My father-in-law was shocked to see me recieving a call in his front yard.  His area (a forest near the Canadian border) has no coverage from any network.  He asked me about it, and I explained that the smartphone must have been going through his satellite internet connection.  However, I have noticed that this does not work well on the slowest satellite internet connections.

phone flirting

Low smartphone costs with TracFone

For some, a pre-paid smartphone through TracFone may be appealing.  They have many plans and some are very cheap.  You must buy the phone through TracFone, but they have some very inexpensive models.

You can achieve cheap smartphoning through tracfone, but it gets a bit complicated.  The details of the plans are complex.  The features are complicated.  The service area issues are complicated.  Tracfonereviewer.blogspot.com has an in-depth article explaining some of the complexities.

The main benefit here is if you are doing nearly all of your smartphoning through Wi-Fi. However, as far as I can tell, making calls and texts through Wi-Fi without using your minutes may not be possible based on your device plan, the device itself, device settings, or region.  You may need to go through an intermediary app like Google voice.

In short, if you enjoy exploring the intricacies of features, plans, specifications etc., then TracFone may work for you.  I tend to believe that anything that is made this complicated is out to get you.  I think that TracFone is the best option only if you barely use your phone for anything.

The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone conclusion.

Having a smartphone can actually save you money, as long as your bill isn’t too high.  Using electronic tickets, parking apps, digital coupons, E books, etc. can save enough that you offset your bill.

Related post: Get the Most from Your Public Library

For me, the choice was simple.  The TracFone option is all about using complexity to find an advantage where Google’s Project Fi is all about simplicity.  The bill is simple, the user experience in simple, integrating with google services (photos etc.) is simple, and the device selection is limited.

My takeaways:

  1. Get a cheap smartphone (maybe even used) that works on Google’s Project Fi.
  2. Get a protective cover and skip the insurance.
  3. Sign up for Google’s Project Fi.
  4. Put in the wi-fi passwords for your home, your gym, your work, your favorite coffee shop, etc.
  5. Turn off the data except when you need it.

I am by no means an expert on coverage, features, phone specs and the rest.  Was “The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone” helpful? Is my conclusion dead wrong? Did I miss an important factor? How do you use your smartphone to save money?  Please leave a comment.

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