Saving

How Frugal Guy Cut His Bill, But Kept His Smartphone

If you roll my head into one of those MRI machines, you’ll see a mind at war with itself. (Please keep my head attached to my body if you take me up on this.)Inside my brain is Gadget Guy, who can’t keep his smartphone in his pocket for more than two minutes at a time. Somewhere nearby in the neural maze is Frugal Guy, who finds the cost of a smartphone contract shameful and hates Gadget Guy for buying one in the first place.These guys need to hammer out a compromise before my head starts smoking. Here’s what they’ve come up with. Frugal Guy says Gadget Guy can keep his stupid phone, on one condition: he has to keep the monthly bill to the bare minimum. That means the stingiest data and talk plans, and no SMS plan. Basically, every cost-saving measure short of breaking into the cable box and routing the neighbors’ service into my house. (Frugal Guy doesn’t really understand cell phone technology; he’d be fine with tin cans and string.)

Okay, enough shtick. I carry an AT&T-network iPhone. Here’s what it would cost me if I went all-out with unlimited voice, 4GB data, and unlimited SMS:

Unlimited voice

$70

4GB data

$45

Unlimited SMS

$20

Total

$135

And that’s not including taxes and fees, which total about 18% here in Seattle. That brings the total to $159. That’s over $1900/year. Frugal Guy just threw up.

The minimal plan is a lot more wallet-friendly, though. For 450 minutes of voice, 200MB data, and no text messages, I pay $65/month—including taxes and fees. That’s far less than the national average smartphone bill of $107, according to J.D. Power’s 2011 Mobile Smartphone CSI Study.

The question is: how do you squeeze your talk, data, and text messages into the minimum plan without taking all the fun out of your phone? Here’s how I do it.

Voice

Among people I know, the pattern is consistent: get a smartphone, spend less time on the phone. I wasn’t a heavy user of minutes to begin with, but now I use even fewer.

So you’ll want to check your usage and make sure you’re not paying for a 900 minute plan if you only use 47 minutes per month. AT&T offers rollover minutes that accumulate from month to month; I’ve accumulated enough of them to make it through several calls from my grandmother.

The carriers charge big money for international calls. For example, to make a call from the US to Canada on AT&T, you’ll pay 39 cents per minute. If you call using the Google Voice app, you’ll just use regular minutes and pay nothing extra. Call Japan, and now you’re looking at $3.49/minute for AT&T and currently free for Google Voice. Sure, you can buy a monthly international plan and pay your carrier less per minute, but as long as Google Voice exists, why would you?

While on wi-fi, you can use Skype or (on an iPhone) FaceTime without using up any minutes. Skype charges (not much—about 2 cents a minute for US and Canada) for outgoing calls to landlines and cell phones; calls to other Skype users are free.

Furthermore, there’s a free iPhone app called Talkatone that lets you make and receive calls absolutely free, via Google Voice. If you use it over wifi, that means no minutes, no data. I tried it and it seems to work fine.

SMS

Two easy options here. Google Voice offers unlimited free SMS. You just to to make sure your friends have your Google Voice number in their phones, not your “real” cell phone number.

Google Voice doesn’t support MMS, however. A popular cross-platform 99-cent app called WhatsApp Messenger offers free messaging and chat of all kinds, but you can only communicate with other WhatsApp users.

Similarly, Apple will be introducing a free messaging service in iOS 5 (due this fall) called iMessenger that will work only with other Apple devices. Because you weren’t already sick of people telling you to get an iPhone.

Data

Back when I bought my phone, in the good old days of 2009, there was only one data plan: unlimited. It was raining data. Hallelujah!

Then last year, AT&T announced it would end unlimited data in favor of 200MB and 2GB monthly plans. But existing unlimited users would be grandfathered in. With my footloose data-slurping ways, I figured I’d stick with unlimited. Imagine my surprise when I went on AT&T’s website and found that I’d never gone over 400MB a month.

I challenged myself to keep it under 200MB. It turned out all I had to do was stop downloading podcasts over 3G and stop streaming YouTube videos on the bus. (I also turned off automatic email and calendar checking, but this helped more with battery life than data usage.)

If you’re a Netflix addict, AT&T’s 200MB plan (or worse, Verizon’s 75MB plan) isn’t going to cut it. But at least go onto your carrier’s website and check your historical data usage. You might be paying for a mile and using an inch.

The Android grass is greener

Yes, this has been totally iPhone-biased so far. Write what you know, and all that.
For another perspective, I emailed Darryl Doak of the Android Authority site. Doak describes himself as “obsessed with saving cash” (part of my brain is nodding in sympathy) and wrote a total cost of ownership comparison for various Android phones on various carriers.

You can implement the same data and messaging strategies outlined above on any smartphone. But if your contract is up and it’s time for a new phone, choosing wisely can save you big money. Doak recommends the Motorola Triumph handset on Virgin Mobile, a prepaid carrier. The phone itself is expensive at $300, but the monthly payment including unlimited SMS and data is $35—with no contract. Compared to an AT&T iPhone, “That’s two iPads worth of savings during your common two year contract time,” says Doak.

Way to make a Frugal Guy jealous, Darryl.