I have an embarrassing confession to make. Despite my otherwise frugal instincts, I’m a sucker for a well-designed Apple product. My brother-in-law, a conscientious consumer, reminds me that the equivalent PC or Android product offers far more flexibility and bang for my buck, but I see a sleek aluminum case and my rational mind turns to mush. The prospect of a less buggy, more integrated ecosystem of products (supported anecdotally by my wife’s frequent expletives while using her Android phone or PC computer) are usually sufficient for me to feel vindicated despite the additional expense.
I take care of my phones, and they last. Two years ago, with my then ~5 year old Android HTC about to be phased out of service, I walked into a Sprint store eager to upgrade to an iphone 6S. I walked out feeling like I’d finally arrived. It wasn’t until a few days later that it dawned on me that I’d been suckered into a pricey two year contract. I cringe to admit that I was even upsold a “free” LG tablet I did not need, and persuaded my wife to join me in this folie á deux and upgrade her phone at Sprint as well.
Since that time, I’ve experienced the financial conversion documented in these pages. Sure, it’s convenient to have my phone and computer communicate, or to have my itunes playlist sync with minimal hassle, but the convenience is far less noticeable than I’d imagined. I’d credit this loss of excitement less to hedonic adaptation than the fact that I try to keep apps to a minimum to limit distractions from those pursuits that give me greater joy, so more bells and whistles simply mean more items to ignore.
Over the past couple of years I’ve suffered occasional conniption fits each time I looked over my cell phone bill. Yes, the bill is paid by my C corp, but it gives me no pleasure to hemorrhage even pre-tax money.
As of this month, I have fulfilled my contractual obligations and am looking to leave Sprint altogether. Next month, the wife is free to depart as well. This prompted a search, both internal and external, for a cell plan that fits my needs. Where I live in southern California, Sprint (counterintuitively) seems to provide the broadest coverage. Having read over the past year on MMM about wif-fi enabled services like Republic Wireless and Google Fi, as well as upstart MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators - basically little guy startup carriers that use the infrastructure owned by the major networks), I was jazzed to pay less for better service. Russian friends tell me the Sprint store is the closest approximation of a Soviet bureaucracy - no one is accountable, service is dismal, waits are endless, and low level employees take sadistic pleasure in exerting their power to your detriment.
I started by looking at my needs and historical usage. I’m not a chatty Cathy - I typically use the phone at home or to briefly coordinate with the wife, and have gotten into the habit of restricting data except as necessary (Uber or navigation are my major data consumers). She uses it for her business, so our collective use on the family plan has peaked at 1500 minutes over the past 6 months.
Our collective historical data usage over the past 6 months is < 1 GB per month (average is 0.3 GB). Despite my ambitions of becoming an international man of mystery, by summer’s end I’ll have taken a paltry 3 trips abroad in the past year. In short, I don’t need a James Bond phone plan, although I’d prefer not to buy a new sim card and troubleshoot it for each new country we visit.
I started by looking at MVNOs, and there are tons, mostly distinguished by the ratio of enthusiastic to disgruntled customer service reviews available online. After a few comparisons on the sites whistleout and wirefly, I zeroed in on Twigby - decent coverage in my area, decent customer service reviews, compatible with bringing my own iphone, and plans starting at $25 for unlimited talk/text + 1 GB data. Sprint charges $200 to buy my no-longer-the-latest iphone 6s, so there is a cost to factor in before I can unlock it and change carriers.
Next I checked out Republic Wireless, which cost $20 for the same package as Twigby, the main difference being that calls are routed preferentially over wifi. Can’t bring the iphone, but there are a range of phone options from $149 for a 16GB basic Galaxy J3 (which is less than it would cost me to keep the iphone) to $449 for a 128GB Nexus 6P. The major disadvantage was no international portability. Go over your allotted data and you can upgrade for the month to the next data tier without penalty, but you need to remember to manually reset to a lower data tier the following month.
Finally, I checked out Google Fi. Despite Google’s Orwellian ubiquity, they designed a pleasingly rational and portable plan. $20 per month covers unlimited talk/text, with an additional $10 per GB of data used. There is also unlimited use of your phone as a wifi hotspot and unlimited international texts. There is seamless portability across 135 countries (as of this writing) which means no fussing with geography-specific phone resets. I find this appealing, because it lets me dream that I might someday grow into needing that kind of coverage. One of the more generous features is that you are credited the difference between the data you signed up for and the data you actually used. Paying for a 1GB plan but using only .3 GB means a $7 credit toward your next month’s bill. I’d estimate this would cost $23 per month for me alone. If you are looking for a group plan it gets better, since adding an additional person is $15. If wife joins, after her additional phone cost, the bill for both of us would be reduced from $155/mo to $38/mo! As for the phones, there are slim pickings. 128 GB Nexus 6p is $449. A budget friendlier option is $249 for a 32 GB Nexus 5x (this price factors in a $150 credit upon activating your service).
My conclusion: I'll return the iphone to Sprint and switch over to Google Fi for the low cost, rational pricing, decent phones and travel flexibility (an admittedly infrequent inconvenience, but one worth avoiding). If the wife joins me, so much the better!
Financial Literacy for The Newly Minted Physician