Saving on Cell Phones – Part 1

By Carol Church

In the quest to find ways to contribute more to the savings that can make house purchase possible, college dreams come true, and retirement comfortable, military and civilian families alike need to find places in their budgets where costs can be cut. One monthly expense that may have caught the eye of many is the price of cell phone service. Though most of us are likely to agree that this has become an essential, it can also be truly expensive, especially for larger families. Over the course of a year, switching to a less costly plan could result in significant savings—enough to make significant start towards an emergency fund or other financial goal. But the possibility of switching plans and carriers can feel intimidating and overwhelming, and families need to be sure that a new plan will work for them. What budget options are out there? Is it worth it to make a change?

Mariia Pekna/ Photospin

Special Considerations for Military Families

For military families, the first thing to know is that there are two unique factors at work for them that are not available to those of us in the civilian world. One is that military discounts exist in the cell phone landscape (though they may or may not represent significant savings). Another is that military personnel may have the option to discontinue cell phone contracts without paying early termination fees, if the discontinuation is due to PCSing or deployment. This no-fee policy should apply if a family or service member’s current service is not available in their new location or if they are PCSing overseas. For more on this, take a look at the terms of the SCRA. Note that even without the legal right to terminate early without a fee, families may also have the option to sell their contract online or place a phone into “vacation status.”

With that out of the way, there are options to consider for budget-minded military families or personnel who’d like to look at less expensive, less typical cell phone plans. Before making these changes, however, it will be important to look critically at cell phone usage within a family and consider priorities. Families will want to look at bills over the last few months (if they can see their usage) and consider what their typical patterns are, and what they are and aren’t willing to change. Here are some additional questions to ask.

Questions to Ask When Considering a Provider Change

  • Are we willing to monitor and control our texting, talk time, and data usage?

Many budget plans aren’t fully unlimited. Can the family keep an eye on and limit usage, especially data? Be aware that with many plans, you can easily set up alerts or even hard limits to let you know when you’ve approached a point where you want to stop. Also, some will still provide access to lower-speed data once a limit has been reached. Also, don’t forget that you may not need unlimited plan for every member of the family. Teens can be hard to handle on a limited plan, for instance, but a spouse who uses data more conservatively or a younger child who just needs an emergency phone may be able to handle a restricted plan just fine, keeping costs lower. When considering data use, keep in mind that an average user uses about 2GB/month, but this will vary widely. You can burn through this very easily if you’re watching streaming video out of the house, for instance.

  • How important is it to have the best coverage?

Carriers vary as far as how comprehensive their coverage is, and budget options may not do as good a job here, particularly in rural areas. For military families who travel and move frequently, this may be of concern; however, keep in mind that none of the budget options discussed here require a contract, so you can change plans at any time.

  • Will anyone be traveling internationally?

If so, pay attention to what these plans can offer. Google Fi shines here, but some other plans also offer international roaming at reasonable rates.

  • How important is crystal clear call quality?

Some budget plans use Wi-Fi for phone calls, which can help save money but may result in poorer call quality. If someone conducts business over the phone, this could be an issue. On the other hand, many of us barely use our voice service.

  • Does someone want to have the newest phones or specific phones?

Many of these plans have you bring your own phone (the cost is not “rolled in”) or require that you use phones specific to the service. If someone in the family is focused on having new phones or a specific phone, this could be an issue.

  • How many people in the family need service?

Some plans have “family” options or the ability to add lines, while others require that each user have his or her own plan. This may increase your cost unsustainably, so do the math with care. However, keep in mind that there may not be a real reason to keep everyone in the family on the same plan.

In our next installment, we’ll review some specific budget options of various types.

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