Phone plan

When I last signed up for a new cell phone service, I opted for the “family plan” that provided two lines with a shared pool of up to 400 minutes per month.   At $600/year, this was cheaper than having two separate plans with the theoretical estimated use of the second line.  While reviewing my cell phone bill, I realized it’s been over four and a half years since I tried to calculate the optimal cell phone plan for my usage. It’s time to do that again.

I enjoy the convenience of a cell phone, but I’m not obsessed with to the point that I’m seduced with each siren chirp (or flashing pretty lights) when there’s a message waiting like, say, all the Crackberry owners at my office who furtively email during meetings.  Work had given me a Blackberry for a year, but they didn’t include a voice phone service with it.  While it was fine for business travel – especially that trip to LA when I’d forgotten my laptop charger – at all other times it was Yet Another Device I had to carry around in my man purse.

As for other phone services:

  • Web browsing – one of my first phones had this and it sucked.  Transfer speed was on a geologic timescale: unusable.
  • Ringtones – I just want my phone to brrrrrring — like a phone should.  It seems kind of dumb that people would spend money on customized jingles with a quality rivaling 1993 MIDI technology, but it’s their money.  The only problem I have is when a coworker’s phone announces their significant other is calling by playing — and this is a hypothetical example (ahem) — M.C. Hammer Sir Mix-a-Lot’s (Edit: Thanks, Ben!) “I Like Big Butts.”  TMI!  TMI!  TMI!
  • Text messaging – I don’t use this very often because the user interface is not good for conveying sarcastic nuance, complete sentences or, as I am wont to do, parenthetical asides.  (Like the time …)
  • Camera – I have/used to have a camera phone.  Transferring pictures was a fourteen click operation per picture that might have been tolerable if the pictures didn’t completely suck.
  • GPS – after the camera experience, I hadn’t considered this a viable option.  The iPhone is an intriguing option, but the estimated two year cost approaches $2,000 for the basic plan.
  • TV/TiVo/DVD remote control – (My Clie had one!)  I’d like to have this option of avoiding sensory overload when entering Costco or having a power lunch at a sports bar.

The cost of my current plan, 400 “anytime” minutes, is $49.99/month, which is about $600/year.   (For simplicity, I have not included the $11-12/month for tax, title, rust undercoating and 9/11 surcharge.) In looking at my 2008 phone usage, I realized it’s difficult — and I’m too lazy to try — to divvy  up my monthly usage data into separate “anytime,” night and “T-mobile to T-mobile” buckets.   For simplicity, let’s assume I make all my calls during the daytime.  Let’s also assume I don’t choose my friends and relatives based on their having a like cell phone provider.

My monthly usage can be approximated by the formula:

90 minutes + 10 minutes per day of traveling

3 text messages per month

On average, this amounts to 120 minutes per month with a peak of 300 (e.g., October).  The second line sees only 16 minutes a month.

Annual usage: Phone 1 = 1500 minutes, Phone 2: 200 minutes.

As far as I can determine,  there aren’t any family plans for less than $50/month. Breaking the two phones into separate allotted plans would cost $10/month more.  So I started looking into pre-paid plans.

If I put the second line on a prepaid plan, I could get away with dropping my plan down to the $29.99 for   The second line would use $10/month worth of minutes (or $120/year).  We could also buy a bloc of 1000 minutes for $100, which would satisfy that phone usage for a year (and then some).   Under that option, the annual cost is $480, or $120 cheaper than my current plan.  It’s clearly an improvement.

As a mental exercise, I calculated the cost of putting both lines on a pay-as-you-go plan.  If I purchase 1000 minutes for $100, they’re good for an entire year.  Based on my usage, two cards would easily last a year.  That puts my annual cost at $300: $200 for my phone plus $100 for the second phone.  It’s a 50% savings.

For completeness, I also calculated the annual cost (to me) if I used their weird “Pay by the day” plan.  This scheme charges $1.00 per day for each day calls are made plus a ~$0.10/minute fee for calls made from 7am – 7pm or to non-T-mobile customers.  (Those calls are “free.”)  I couldn’t come up with useful data to support this case — both from lacking data and not wanting to spend the time to dredge it up — but on raw days of usage, it’s only slightly better than what I have now.

Conclusion: pre-paid seems to be the cheapest solution for my need.  After I worked all this out in a pretty spreadsheet, the December 2008 issue of Consumer Reports recommends the same thing.

6 thoughts on “Phone plan”

  1. Please, sir. The song to which you are referring is “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot, a Seattle musician. MC Hammer! An outrage!

  2. Both the husband and I use Virgin Mobile’s prepaid plans. We talk a bit more than you, mostly because we have no home line, but still not enough to warrant the huge expense of a regular plan (or even a family plan). After shopping around, we settled on Virgin because we seemed to get more minutes for our money.

    Currently, we each pay 30$ a month for 200 anytime minutes, 500 nights/weekend minutes, and 1000 (!!) texts. Though we don’t get close to those minutes (except when my mom is feeling chatty), and nowhere near that many texts, it leaves us feeling better than a major cell company’s mandatory fees and charges, which always added up to more than 45$ a month each. Also, there are no fees for going over our minutes, and (in the rare event that happened), we could simply start a new month early. I like it, and find it the most sensible.

    Also, FWIW, when said husband calls, my phone plays Pink Floyd. Just ’cause it’s his favorite band, tho; not because he don’t need no more education.


  3. Pre-paid is definitely the way to go if you’re low talkers, as we are at our house; we talk so little we’re still on the minute-by-minute plan which means we’re paying $20/3 months (aka: $120 per year). FWIW, my aunt has a family plan with four lines and unlimited text and I think they’re paying upwards of $300/month.

    Even on pre-paid you can still get the fancy phone (Virgin Mobile offers ones that will play “real music” ring tones though why I’d want to pay $3 for a snippet of “Umbrella” (seriously, did that song have any other words?) I don’t know) even without the fancy plan.

  4. My phone plays the theme to Law and Order when my wife calls. 1993 MIDI technology or not, it works for me.

  5. All you guys are such smart shoppers! The cell phone company marketing guys saw me coming, because we have the uber-data shared plan with a bazillion minutes, gps, internet access, email, and the kitchen sink. I like toys, what can I say?

    My ringer is “Tubular Bells”, aka the theme from the Exorcist.
    When Terri calls, it rings like an old-time regular telephone.
    Voice Mail is “This is Sparta!” from 300.
    Text Message is Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Cromwell getting an arrow to the chest and saying “Message for you, sir”.

  6. I’m two-months into the pay-as-I-go plan for both lines and haven’t noticed any decline in service. By the end of next month, I will have broken even. The rest of the year is pure savings!

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