Trading down: Why I gave up my dealer cell service for a prepaid one.

Posted: September 28, 2014 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

costs

Prepaid phone services hold the image of being for those who for whatever reason can’t afford a phone contract.  As a phone reseller, I generally recommend no-contract options if the person lacks the credit or the up-front cost for a flagship phone on a postpaid service.  The reason for this is the old saying: “You get what you pay for”.  The prepaid services all rent towers from the postpaid ones and of course the big providers are not going to offer more for less.  So generally the prepaid plans are a stripped down version of what the carrier offers under contract, generally with slower or stingier data allotments.  They also offer no discount on phone hardware, so the only way to get a high-end device like a Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone is to pay full price for it.  So for those reasons, if a person has decent credit and can afford to pay the bill for 2 years, I almost always recommend getting the best deal you can on the best phone.

So then why am I, an authorized reseller with access to any phone from all three major carriers, trading in my At&t phone for a Boost mobile one?  With my At&t dealer line, I had all of the features of a fully loaded consumer plan (hotspot, 5GB data etc) at a measly $35/mo.  Now for the same $35/mo. I have 1GB of full-speed data and unlimited everything else on the considerably smaller Sprint network.  Have I lost my mind?  I don’t think so and I’ll explain why.

Nothing in life is certain

These days, even corporate fatcats don’t have job security.  I work part-time at Radio Shack, which makes my prospects of keeping my dealer line pretty bad, but no job is secure these days.  Even if you work for a company that pays your phone bill or even work for one of the carriers themselves, you could be out of work tomorrow.  This makes any deal that you get to make your contract phone affordable a risk.  Even if you are just making plenty of money and can afford a $100+ phone bill, that could change in an instant.  I lost everything in a fire last year and taking a job at Radio Shack was the only way I could survive, as it got me a dealer plan and saved me a lot on the electronic components I need for my other work.  If not for that convenient, yet less than ideal job, my phone bill would have broken my back in the midst of recovering from that major setback.  Now that I want the freedom to find better work, being chained to my low-wage job just to save $75-80 monthly on my phone bill is no longer worth it.  I would much rather give up some features I never use to be free from the risk of going back to my $120 bill if Radio Shack goes under or I take another job.

What do you really need?

I fully admit that as a phone reseller I am trained to sell you on wishful thinking.  We convince people to buy extra features like large amounts of hotspot data and gimmicks like roadside assistance.  We create hypothetical scenarios in your mind that you will likely never encounter, like: “What if you want to use your iPad to edit and upload photos when you’re backpacking?” or “What if your teenage daughter breaks down in the middle of the desert?”   The reality is that most people don’t go backpacking, but would like to imagine themselves as someone who would.  AAA also offers better roadside assistance at about the same cost, with more free services.  In fact, one of the major carriers just resells AAA to their customers and keeps an extra dollar or two just for rebranding it.  Even the “best coverage” that all of the networks seem to claim in one area or other is deceptive as all of them offer pretty solid coverage in populated areas and Verizon maintains their status by getting a monopoly on towers in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.

The best way to realistically decide what you need is with your own eyes and your own brain.  If you are only using 1GB of your 10GB of data, you don’t need it.  If you haven’t left cities and major highways all year, you would be fine on any network.  Even the prepaid networks offer coverage in Canada, Mexico and outlying states like Alaska and Hawaii, so you pretty much need to live or vacation in rural Arkansas for coverage to be a deal breaker.  Also, be aware that any modern phone can use wifi instead of cellular for both data and calls.  This eliminates both the data and coverage issues in any area with wifi (which is damn near anywhere these days).

Is the best phone really the best for you?

Something I deal with every day at both of my jobs is people getting the best phone because they think they need it and then complaining about it constantly.  People buy the new iPhone or Galaxy because the salesperson wows them on the specs and then they don’t understand why it sucks as a basic phone.  It’s actually pretty simple if you apply common sense.  A phone that is pushing a 1080p+ screen on a processor faster than a laptop is going to eat up its’ battery pretty quick.  A phone that is designed to look cool at the expense of everything else may not have the best speaker and microphone, making your call quality crap.  Basically, if you are using a phone that has all of these gee whiz specs for anything but high end gaming and development, you are just throwing power, heat and pocket space out the window.  The things that make the flagship phones the best are features that you aren’t even using.  Chances are that you can’t even see the benefits as the screen resolution is higher than you can perceive and the processor is several times what you need to power all of the apps you use at full speed.

Which brings me to the new crop of prepaid phones.  It used to be that if you got a phone that was under $200, you had to sacrifice major features like 4G and a decent camera to save a few bucks.  Not so anymore.  I picked up the LG Volt (currently $80 at Radio Shack, normally $180) as a replacement for my now two year old Nokia Lumia 920.  The funny thing is that it still feels like an upgrade even though it cost less than my old phone is worth used.  Now hold the Windows Phone jokes, I don’t mean the OS.  I actually love WP since the 8.1 update and would have gladly stayed with it if there had been an option that worked for me.  What I mean is that 2 years later, I can get a quad-core phone with LTE and an 8MP camera with flash for the price of a basic phone a few years ago.  It blazes through tasks, gets good network speed and takes perfectly acceptable pictures.  Sure, I lost some things like the front light sensor and wireless charging that were nice, but I’m not exactly missing them as my new phone gets more battery life without auto brightness and I never used Qi as I would have only had it at home.  The call quality is fine and the screen, although lower res than new phones, looks perfectly good to me for my use.  My battery goes a full 2 days, which even with updates, my Nokia would only do at minimal use.

Conclusion: All that matters

Originally I made the choice to get out of my contract as a panicked move in response to my employer’s uncertain state in the retail world.  I had been debating which top-tier phone to get for months, which was fortunate as I could have ended up with a 2 year commitment at full price if things go badly for Radio Shack.  When I spent about the same cost on the phone as I would have with discount on a new contract and got it for about the same monthly bill, I expected to feel some relief but also loss of what I had before.  Actually, I feel great.  Better than great, I feel free.  Not only is my cheap new phone at least good enough in every way, in a lot of ways it’s better, just from improvements and reduced production cost in the last 2 years.  The best part is that I no longer have to consider my phone bill when thinking about changes and risks in my finances.  I can confidently pursue a better side job without worrying about a tough transition and a huge bill to worry about.  If I change my mind later, I can even just throw the phone away and stop paying the bill and I’m out less than the cost of one full-price At&t bill.  Even if I decide I like my phone so much I want to unlock it and take it with me, I can without any hassle from my carrier.

As someone who had the ability to have any phone and service you may be considering at a fraction of the cost, I’m very happy with my decision to take none of the above.  My phone and service are good enough and then some.  Don’t tell my employers I said this, but I recommend the same to 90% of you out there.  I know it’s an overused phrase by the prepaid companies, but break the chains and you won’t regret it.

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