bikers on smartphones

The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone

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I may have been the last person in Philadelphia to get a smart phone.  I was mocked in the street. I didn’t need one 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 convinced me that it was not worth it to me.

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

Finally, a friend who switches phones and plans compulsively clued me in to a smartphone plan that would work for me.

Everyone knows how smartphones drain your money

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. Even though we had a Verizon discount through my wife’s employment, I wanted to see if I could do better. 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.)

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 answer. (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.  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.

Know your smartphone situation before acting

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. Do I consistently have access to Wi-Fi?
  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?

If you are not too picky about your smartphone needs, I have two smartphone solutions that are dirt cheap. (Have you priced dirt lately?)

people looking at smartphones
Creative Commons photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

Low smartphone costs with Google’s Project Fi

This was the solution that my friend told me about, and I love it. I pay $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.

Amazon link: refurbished Nexus 5x

Amazon link: Nexus 5x cover

Amazon link: refurbished Nexus 6P

Don’t buy smartphone insurance. I am a strong believer that most insurance is a scam, and smartphone insurance certainly is.  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.

Lowering your smartphone costs summary

  1. Get a cheap smartphone (maybe even used) that works on Project Fi.
  2. Get a protective cover.
  3. Sign up for Google’s Project Fi.
  4. Turn off the data except when you need directions etc.

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