This article is by Kassondra Cloos, an Earnest client and freelance journalist.
Every year, I pay about $750 for Verizon cell service for my iPhone and iPad, through a family plan with my parents and brother. I’d much rather funnel that money toward paying off my car or student loans faster, and we bet you would, too.
Phone plans are notoriously cumbersome to analyze. Talking with customer service to figure out a lower-cost plan that works for you is often daunting and, for most of us, annoyingly time-consuming.
So, we’ve done it for you. We’ve analyzed Android- and iPhone-friendly plans to give you four low- and no-cost alternatives to your monthly bill. This year, budget a few extra Benjamins toward your debt and make 2018 a turning point on your path to financial independence.
P.S. Think throwing an extra $40 per month on your student loans doesn’t matter? Here’s the long-term impact: If you have a five-year term for a $30,000 loan at a fixed rate of 5.0% APR, paying $600 a month instead of your regular $566 payment will save you $258 in interest over the life of your loan. And you’ll graduate from your student debt a full three months sooner. Time and money saved!
FreedomPop charges you as little as $0 a month for 200 minutes, 500 text messages, and up to 500 megabytes of data on networks like AT&T. That’s not much data, but if you turn off cellular data for apps like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube and connect to wifi whenever possible, you may make it work. Talk and text are always unlimited between FreedomPop phones, so consider trying to convert your partner or parents if you need to communicate often without a wifi connection.
I tested out FreedomPop for a month to be sure it wasn’t too good to be true. For $12, I ordered a SIM card and activated my old iPhone 5C and activated a free trial of the 2GB plan with unlimited talk and text. I tested coverage as I drove from Boulder, Colorado, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was pleasantly surprised to find I could use Google Maps and stream Pandora through much of the trip, even though I was traveling through unpopulated territory.
Going over your monthly allowance costs 2.5 cents per megabyte on the free plan ($25 per gig, which is equal to roughly an hour of high-quality streaming on Netflix, or up to four hours at lower quality), so watch your usage closely in the FreedomPop app on your phone. When needed, you can score extra data for free by inviting friends and completing various surveys and free trial offers on FreedomPop’s website.
There are a few quirks that take a bit of getting used to—on an iPhone, for example, you have to make phone calls through the FreedomPop app instead of through the normal phone function—but they weren’t dealbreakers for me. You can still text fellow iPhones using the iMessage app with your iCloud account, but you must use the FreedomPop app to text Android phones.
Low-cost carrier Mint is bringing the bulk savings model to cell plans. Instead of paying a monthly fee, you pay ahead for three, six, or 12 months at a time. That results in bargain-basement prices like $25 per month for 10 GB of data. As of December 2017, Mint is offering a new customer deal: Buy three months, get three free. That’s six months of service for $45 to $75 total, depending on how much data you want. The cheapest plan is $15 for 2 GB.
If you live in the middle of the United States outside a major city, check their coverage map before signing on. Nearly all of Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, Maine, West Virginia, and Iowa, and large swaths of rural areas in Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada are out of luck.
Take advantage of a free year of Sprint. This is not a drill. Sprint is offering a free year of unlimited talk, text, and data to new customers who bring eligible phones. You have to pay $13 to buy a new Sprint SIM card and $30 to activate (credited to your account within two billing cycles). After that, your monthly cost is taxes and about $2.50 of administrative and regulatory fees. This offer is good for up to five phones, so you can bring the whole family. There’s no contract, but be aware that you’ll be automatically enrolled in the plan once your trial ends, so set a calendar alert to reevaluate your plan 11 months from signing up. Full price is $60 a month for the first line, $40 for the second, and $30 for lines three through five.
Instead of paying for a monthly phone plan, ditch your provider in favor of a wifi hotspot service, which will give you service as you need it in most of the same places your cell carrier would.
Karma Go, for example, offers a variety of monthly, pay ahead, and pay-as-you-go plans with solid coverage east of the Mississippi and in major cities in the West. If you’re a heavy data user, this likely won’t be more cost-effective for you than a cell phone plan. But if you’re usually using 5 GB or less per month, this might be for you.
Pay ahead for the gigs you think you need, starting at $7.50/GB, and use them within three months; pay $3 per month plus $10/GB; or pay a monthly fee for 5, 10, or 20 GB, for $40 to $100 per month. Every time a new friend connects to your hotspot, they use data for free and you get 100 extra megabytes plus $1 toward your account if you have a monthly plan.
Be aware that there’s a hefty start-up cost—$199 for the Karma Go device—and that 911 services are different when you’re calling from wifi.