Monday, March 24, 2014

Your Cell Phone Costs Too Much - Here's the Best (Cheapest) Plan for You

[Announcement: There is an updated 2015 version of this post with additional and more current information available by clicking this link.]

While your bill may not be $20k per month, you are almost
certainly paying way more for your cell phone than you should.

Very recently, I helped my parents and my wife cut the cord from the Death Star (i.e., AT&T Mobile) - prior to making the change, we were paying $200+ per month for two dumb phones and two smart phones on a family plan, and we didn't even have unlimited minutes. Now, my parents are each paying about $2/month for their dumb phone plans, and my wife and I are each paying $10/month for our smart phone plans.

So, from $200 per month to $25 per month, for the four of us.

How much are you paying? If you're in the US, you're paying too much, and you're paying a lot more than the rest of the developed world is:


As a part of this change, I did a lot of research into the current offerings out there, and found some really innovating pricing done by small companies - many of whom offer much, MUCH better deals than the big 4 in the USA (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint). As I don't want all that research and knowledge to go to waste, I figured I'd write an overview of what I found and detail the best cell phone deal available (as of March 2014) for a bunch of different consumer archetypes - the odds are that you fall into one of the below buckets, and the odds are that you can save A LOT of money compared to your current cell phone bill.

(Disclaimer: My wife and I are both on RingPlus, and my parents are on LycaMobile. I was not paid any money by any company for this post, nor do I receive any referral fees. I detail any personal experiences with the companies I've had below; I have not had personal experiences with all the below-listed companies. Also, none of the below prices include possible taxes, fees, etc., so your monthly bill from any of them might be a little higher than detailed below.)

All of the below plans are prepaid plans (as prepaid cell plans are far cheaper than contract plans), but that means that you have to pay full price for your phone up-front. However, even paying full price for a phone, you'll be saving a lot of money over the course of a two year contract with one of the big companies. So, I don't want to hear any complaints about how much a phone costs. You're saving money in the long-run.

Free (but Questionable) Service for Light/Moderate Smart Phone Users in Big Cities: FreedomPop


My recommended plan: Their free plan - 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of 4G data for $0 per month.
The Phone: A refurbished Samsung Galaxy S2, currently available from them for $160. A decent, if dated phone - I used a Samsung Galaxy S2 happily for more than 2 years, and would have kept using it if I hadn't broken it. They also have very limited bring your own phone options (so limited as to be almost worthless, but they say they're working on that - but, they've been "working on" that for several months now).
The Good: Yes, Virginia, you can get totally free smart phone service, and it should be enough for you if you're a light/moderate user. I have a wireless 4G hotspot from FreedomPop, and it works well enough and is indeed 100% free.
The Bad: It runs on Sprint's network, which isn't be best network out there. And to some extent, you get what you pay for. I tried their free phone service when it first launched with an HTC Evo 4G, and it was so bad that I couldn't use it day-to-day - but, I'm not sure how much of that was the service quality, and how much was the extremely old cell phone. I'm sure the service is much better with the Samsung Galaxy S2. Their customer service is rather slow. I'm also relatively certain that you can only sign up with FreedomPop if you live in a city with Sprint 4G service, but someone can correct me there if I'm wrong. (The phone works nationwide on Sprint, however - it's just for the initial setup/shipping that you need a city address.) Finally, if you do go over your free allotment, their per-minute and per-megabyte charges are higher than the other options here (they've got to make money somehow, after all).
The Verdict: It might be a great option for you, especially with the Samsung Galaxy S2 - free is free, after all. And if their service is too bad for you, they offer a 30 day money back guarantee on the phone you buy.

Dirt-Cheap Per-Minute Service for Grandma and Grandpa: LycaMobile


My recommended plan: Their pay as you go plan (2 cents per voice minute; 4 cents per text; 6 cents per megabyte of data.)
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone (i.e. any phone that is unlocked and compatible with AT&T or T-Mobile). These kinds of dumb phones can be bought used for $20 or less, or you may even have some of these lying around in a drawer somewhere.
The Good: Dirt-cheap per-minute cell phone service. LycaMobile is also the only prepaid service I know of where your credit doesn't expire after a certain period of time (e.g. after 30 or 90 days), as long as you make 1 phone call or send 1 text every 90 days. Therefore, as my parents only use about 60 minutes per month, their monthly bill with LycaMobile is approximately $1.20 per month. Fantastic. LycaMobile uses T-Mobile's network (and it includes 4G access where available), so coverage is pretty good, especially in cities.
The Bad: The per-minute text and data rates are higher than some of the other options on this list, so I don't recommend this for a smart phone user, except for people who are VERY light users. Also, even though their coverage is nationwide, you can only sign up if you have an address in a city. For example, my parents in rural Tennessee couldn't sign up for this plan directly - I had to have the SIM cards shipped to me in DC and had to sign them up with a DC phone number, though the service has worked fine for them in Tennessee for the past few months.
The Verdict: It is far and away the best plan for people like Grandma and Grandpa, who don't use many minutes and don't need much/any texting or data.

Reliable Service for Light/Moderate Smart Phone Users: RingPlus


My recommended plan: Their $10/month Bella plan (400 minutes, 400 texts, and 300MB of 3G/4G/LTE data). This is the plan that both my wife and I are on.
The Phone: Almost any Sprint phone. If you want the newest, top-of-the-line phone, I'd recommend a Google Nexus 5 (costs $349 and up - be sure to buy it straight from Google. To use a Google Nexus 5, you'll also need a Sprint LTE SIM card, available here for $10). If you're content with merely a great phone instead of the absolute best, the best smart phone deal available now is a used Samsung Galaxy S3 for $175. The S3 was made even more awesome recently because of Samsung's announcement that they'd be releasing Android 4.4 for the S3 sometime, so eventually, you'll even be able to run the newest Android version.
The Good: Excellent, reliable service anywhere that Sprint is available. RingPlus's customer service is very good. Per-minute, per-text, and per-megabyte rates are all quite low (2 cents each), so even if you go over your monthly allotment, your monthly bill won't explode.
The Bad: RingPlus doesn't offer roaming on any other networks, so the service only works where Sprint has towers. This is fine in cities and along highways, but if you live in a very rural area, this service is probably a bad choice for you.
The Verdict: Undoubtedly the best smart phone service deal for light/moderate users, if FreedomPop doesn't meet your needs (either because you want a newer phone, or because you find their service too unreliable). If you combine RingPlus's service with a used S3, it's probably my favorite smart phone deal available right now, unless you need unlimited everything.

Cheap, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (if you can live with Sprint's 3G): Republic Wireless


My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including 3G only data) for $25/month.
The Phone: They will sell you a Moto X for $299 (which is a decent price for an excellent phone - second only to the Google Nexus 5, in my opinion). They're about to launch the Moto G for $149 as well, if you are happy with a nice but more modest spec sheet.
The Good: People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. They offer some roaming (you can check their coverage map), so it may even be a good option for those of you in more rural areas.
The Bad: I wouldn't say it's bad, but it is a reality of using Republic Wireless - they want you to connect to WiFi at home, work, and wherever else you can. When you're connected to WiFi, they route all your calls and data through WiFi, which is much cheaper for them. They consider WiFi to be your primary cell phone connection, and the actual cell service as a backup for when you're not near WiFi. Finally, I don't like the fact that I can't bring my own phone (e.g. my new, beloved Google Nexus 5).
The Verdict: If I had a teenager, this plan with the Moto G is almost certainly what I'd get for them - it's hard to argue with unlimited everything for $25, if you are content with Sprint 3G data speeds. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements.

Inexpensive, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (with Sprint's 4G LTE): Republic Wireless


My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including up to 5GB of 4G LTE data) for $40/month.
The Phone: They will sell you a Moto X for $299 (which is a decent price for an excellent phone - second only to the Google Nexus 5, in my opinion). Since the Moto G is 3G only, you have to have the Moto X for this plan.
The Good: The same as the above, with the addition of 4G LTE data (up to 5GB per month, and slowed after that).
The Bad: Same as the above.
The Verdict: An excellent option if you want an excellent phone and unlimited everything with 4G LTE service, without totally breaking your bank. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements.

Inexpensive (but metered) Service, with Free Voice and Text Roaming on Verizon: Ting


My recommended plan: There is only one plan, and it scales with your usage as detailed here.
The Phone: They have the largest variety of phones available for sale of any of the companies listed on this page, including just-launched phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, HTC One, and others. You can also bring almost any Sprint phone, and I'd recommend buying a Google Nexus 5 from Google and taking it to Ting to use.
The Good: Huge variety of phones (and the ability to bring your own). People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. Ting offers free voice and text roaming on Verizon, so they have voice and text (not data) coverage practically everywhere. Your monthly bill scales to your actual usage, so if you use very little in one month, your bill shrinks dramatically, and then goes back to normal the next month.
The Bad: They don't have any unlimited service plan options.
The Verdict: If you're not an extremely heavy cell phone user but want 4G (and/or want a wider selection of phones), Ting will likely save you money and will definitely offer you more phone options than Republic Wireless. If you're in rural America, their roaming deal with Verizon has you covered for voice and text, but not data.

If You HATE Sprint but Want Loads of Data for Cheap: T-Mobile Monthly4G


My recommended plan: 100 Minutes, Unlimited Texts, and Unlimited Data (up to 5GB at 4G speeds) for $30/month.
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone will work, though obviously, you'd want one compatible with T-Mobile's 4G LTE service. Might I recommend the Google Nexus 5?
The Good: T-Mobile earns props for being the only company of the big 4 that earns a spot on my list at all, even if it is a bit of a niche plan. If you simply HATE Sprint irrationally (or if Sprint's coverage in your area is particularly bad), this plan is a cheap way to get lots of data.
The Bad: Very low number of minutes (not a problem for me, but a problem for some/many). This plan is only available from Wal-Mart or directly from t-mobile.com.
The Verdict: An excellent option for people who want lots of data and don't want to / can't use Sprint, and/or who already have an unlocked GSM smart phone they can use with this service. I had an out-of-contract Samsung Galaxy S2 from AT&T and used it on this plan for several months until the phone finally broke (when I replaced it with a Google Nexus 5 and switched to the even-cheaper RingPlus plan).

If You Simply MUST Have an iPhone: Virgin Mobile USA


As you may have noticed, most of the companies listed on this page run their networks through Sprint. Unfortunately, Sprint recently changed it's "bring your own device" rules for most of the small companies that run their service on Sprint's network, so you can no longer activate Sprint iPhones with most of these companies. If you're addicted to Apple products, I would recommend that you free yourself from your addiction, as Android or PC products offer more bang for your buck than Apple products. But, if you simply MUST have your iPhone fix, you can buy a new iPhone 5s (surprisingly cheaply, actually - $385 as of the time of writing) from Virgin Mobile USA (which uses Sprint's network). All of their plans offer unlimited data and texting, and you get 300 minutes for $35, 1200 minutes for $45, and unlimited minutes for $55 a month. I had Virgin Mobile USA for more than a year back when the 300 minute bucket was only $25 a month, and it was decent enough, though the customer service was rather mediocre.

LTE Data in Rural America: You're Screwed (For Now)


If you live in the middle of nowhere and simply HAVE to have 4G LTE data, paying full price for Verizon is your only option - unlike Sprint and T-Mobile (and, to a smaller extent, AT&T), Verizon doesn't give any small company access to its LTE network. If I were you, I'd get over my need for LTE data and go with Republic Wireless or Ting, but if you have to have LTE data in rural America, then you have no choice but to go with Verizon. Sorry - it sucks to be you. But, there may be some hope on the horizon - T-Mobile recently announced that they would be upgrading all of their 2G service to 4G LTE by mid-2015, so if you can hold out another year, then either LycaMobile or T-Mobile's own prepaid service will be heading your way.

So, that's what I found - have you found an even better deal? If so, let me know in the comments.

Also, the above obviously only applies to my American readers - but if you're from another country and have found a sweet cell phone deal, feel free to share that in the comments as well.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Public Service Announcement: The NFL Is a Registered Non-Proft Corporation

In the above picture, the Saint represents the NFL, and the Bear represents taxpayers.

I meant to post this back during football season, but, well, life got in the way. Better late than never, I suppose.

I guess I should stop being surprised by news like this, but I was truly surprised to learn
  1. that the NFL is a registered non-profit organization, and
  2. that in spite of earning billions of dollars a year, it manages to squeeze millions (and even billions) of dollars in public subsidies from taxpayers.
What kind of nonsense is the NFL up to? Well, let me quote the linked Atlantic article:
Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to [New Orleans Saints owner Tom] Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.
 Or this:
CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks play, opened in 2002, with Washington State taxpayers providing $390 million of the $560 million construction cost. The Seahawks, owned by Paul Allen, one of the richest people in the world, pay the state about $1 million annually in rent in return for most of the revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcasting (all told, perhaps $200 million a year). Average people are taxed to fund Allen’s private-jet lifestyle.
In addition to all of that, the NFL is a registered non-profit - a non-profit that pays its top five executives $60 million a year and sucks in billions in public subsidies, and then gives itself huge props when it returns a few hundred thousand dollars to the communities that it's fleecing.

It would be farcical, except for the fact that the NFL is taking money away from schools, hospitals, and roads:
The NFL asked Congress to grant pro football a waiver from the disclosure rule. During the lobbying battle, Joe Browne, then the league’s vice president for public affairs, told The New York Times, “I finally get to the point where I’m making 150 grand, and they want to put my name and address on the [disclosure] form so the lawyer next door who makes a million dollars a year can laugh at me.” Browne added that $150,000 does not buy in the New York area what it would in “Dubuque, Iowa.” The waiver was denied. Left no option, the NFL revealed that at the time, Browne made about $2 million annually.
Crikey. Well, I guess that's another reason for me to never give the NFL a dime of my money, and to not give them money though advertisers by watching their games. But seriously - the NFL is profitable enough to survive (and thrive) without all of these public dollars. And the same applies to the NBA and MLB. At what point does greed become a shameful sin?

And from a rational, cost-benefit perspective, this seems like really bad public policy, very much like the terribly public policy of providing public subsidies to TV and movie producers, which I've written about before. There's really no excuse for such bad public policy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An Unforgiving Breakdown of the Obscene Amount of Sugar Americans Consume

One of the things I was involved in during my multi-month break was working on the new regulations recently announced by the White House that will limit the marketing of unhealthy foods in schools.

In that vein, I give you a friendly reminder:

Sugar is terrible for you. Awful, terrible, stuff. Eating more than a very small amount of it will slowly (or less slowly) kill you.

This infograpic is a start look at how much sugar we collectively consume, and what it's doing to us. It's bad, bad stuff, doing bad bad things: