How NOT to shop for a smart phone and data planBefore I go into the right way to shop for a smart phone and plan, let me tell you how a certain individual (OK, it's my dad) made all the wrong moves when shopping for a smart phone and data plan. First, not only did he have no idea what his data and communications needs were, he had no real need for a smart phone: doesn't use email, doesn't have anyone to text, already has a GPS in his truck, and is computer illiterate. So the smart phone was an impulse purchase bought on pure emotion. Second, he didn't shop around at all. He already had a Verizon phone, so he just walked into the Verizon store and presented himself as a nice juicy target to the sales staff. Third, he followed up on these fundamental mistakes by not understanding his data plan and not seeing his phone as a part of his overall communications strategy, and promptly went above the limits on his data plan by incessant and unnecessary web surfing, none of it using wireless access.
What The Technical Meshugana taught meNow that we've seen the case study of what NOT to do, let's move on to the smart way to shop for and use smart phones. Much of what I learned about how to buy a smart phone and shop for a data plan I learned from The Technical Meshugana. He has an extensive guide on telecommunications on his web site. If you want to geek out I highly recommend it. If you're looking for one set of recommendations that may work for you, and don't want to read an exhaustive guide, read on below!
First, know what your communications needs are. Do you make a lot of international calls? Are you a true road warrior who spends most of your time traveling? Do you do a lot of texting? Do you spend most of your time in a few locations, with easy access to phones and computers? Will you have a home phone in addition to your cell?
Second, understand how best to use the technology infrastructure that already surrounds you. I do a lot of surfing on my phone, and use apps that need access to the internet. And yet I rarely use more than half my monthly allotted data. The key is to use wireless access where it is available. While I'm at home my phone is always using my home wireless access. When I'm not at home I'm always looking for free wireless access. In the past month I have used free WiFi at Barnes and Noble*, Kohl's**, the hospital where my mother in law was admitted, the hospitals where she had doctor's appointments, and my parents' house, just to name a few. While the biggest threat to smart phones is apps that aren't downloaded from reputable sources, you still need to be careful when using unsecured WiFi networks. Take a look at the free suite of antivirus and VPN products available from avast! to protect your phone while using free wireless access.
Third, take control of your texting. SMS texting is a cash cow for service providers. A text is a tiny amount of data that your provider will want to charge you big bucks for, so even if you don't have free WiFi available, almost any method of sending a text using your data plan is going to be more cost-effective than sending a text using your texting plan. I limit my texts and I message my Facebook friends using Facebook Messenger, especially when I have free WiFi available. In addition to Facebook Messenger, you could convert the few people you text most over to a service like Kik instant messanger or you could use Google Voice. There's no need to give up texting -- just take control of it.
Other people "have to have" the latest and greatest; their loss is your gain
If you don't need the hottest, newest incarnation of the iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy (hint: no one needs the newest version of a phone), you are in control of the smart phone market. While other people are selling their like-new phones in exchange for questionable benefits like owning a status symbol, you can have a great phone at a bargain price. I bought my phone at Glyde.com, which is a middle man that connects sellers and buyers of used phones and other consumer electronics. At Glyde you select what you want to buy and what condition you are willing to pay for. The better the condition, the more it will cost. However, having said that, I did not pick the best possible condition, and my phone still showed up looking brand-new; it still had the original protective cover on the screen. Glyde guarantees the transaction, so if you're dissatisfied with anything, Glyde provides customer service, not the unknown seller. So, for $100 I had a great, brand-new Samsung Galaxy phone and no 2-year contract obligating me to pay through the nose.
Now, this only works if you are using a service provider that will allow you to bring your own phone, so don't pick a provider that won't.
Where to get a $15 a month service provider
There are lots of providers out there who are buying service from owners like Verizon or Sprint and reselling it to consumers at a much cheaper rate than you can get from the owners yourself. For a list of recommended providers and an explanation of how this works, check out the Technical Meshugana's Cell Phone Providers.
I chose Ting***, which is a Sprint reseller. What I like about Ting is that there is no contract and you only pay for what you use. Data, voice, and text each have their own buckets, and as you move out of one usage bucket and into another, you are charged incrementally more. Here are their rates as of June 29, 2014.
Ting also has a referral program. If you use my link (https://zp70hi2inm6.ting.com/) you'll save $25 and I'll also get a $25 referral credit.
The Key is MindfulnessWhen I had a work-issued phone I didn't pay attention to how much I used it or where I used it. But, as in anything you pay for yourself, mindfulness is the key to keeping your bills low. The good news is, once you've got this all set up and you've figured out what works best for you, it's extremely easy and CHEAP!
*I used Barnes and Noble's free WiFi to scan the bar codes of items using my Amazon price checking app and found that the items were cheaper at Amazon. Purchased the items within the app and saved at least $5. Barnes and Noble does not do price matching.
**Here's a tip that doesn't belong in this article but it's too good not to share. Kohl's almost always has 15% off coupons available online. Next time you want to buy something at Kohl's just connect to their free WiFi in the store then go to a site like RetailMeNot.com and find the best current coupon. The cashier will scan it directly off of your phone's screen.
***This is a referral link and both you and I will benefit if you use it, as I describe above.