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.