The Sometimes Phone, Part I

Thursday, September 19, 2013

[Okay I know this is a ridiculously long story but if you wait for me to figure out which parts are actually relevant and edit it appropriately I’ll never get it up. I just need to write and post. I’ll put up a summary when it’s all written with key points. People who want to know about this but have limited patience for rambling writing can just wait for that.]

I had a conversation the other night with someone I know who doesn’t own a car but sometimes needs one when she travels, and she talked about how complicated that is, that the whole system is designed for people who have cars all the time, and if you don’t, you have to get crazy expensive insurance and it feels like highway robbery. (And for any of you who find yourself in this position, she said that the solution she finally came up with is to use Hotwire, they offer relatively cheap insurance with their cars. Now you know.)

I said this is the same problem I have with cell phones, the system is set up for people to have a phone all the time, every day, not to have a phone when they go out of town, which is the only time I want or need a cell phone.

And that conversation inspired me to finally write this post. Because I think I have (more or less) solved the phone problem — at long last, I finally have a Sometimes Phone.

When you say you don’t have a phone but need one sometimes, people say, “Just get a pay-as-you-go phone.” This is always suggested by someone who knows absolutely nothing about pay-as-you-go phones.

It would be nice if you could get a pay-as-you-go phone and then pay when you wanted to use it and not pay when you didn’t need it then when you needed it again put more money on it. However this is not how pay-as-you-go phones work.

When you get a pay-as-you-go phone, you create an account with a carrier and they give you a phone number and you put money on the phone on a regular basis to keep it active. How often you have to put money on the phone depends on how much money you put on in the first place, and the carrier, and all kinds of other variables that I am not remembering right now because I have blocked this whole thing from my memory, because it is such a pain in the ass.

Every carrier is different and trying to compare plans is extremely difficult. I am like a total superstar at stuff like this and even I am unable to properly run numbers and come up with a rational conclusion.

So I will just say that generally what I found is that in order to get a low per-minute rate, you need to buy quite a lot of minutes each month, at which point you might as well just get a monthly plan because you’re spending the same amount.

For a long time (spring 2003 to fall 2012) I had a Virgin Mobile plan that did what I needed and was pretty cost-effective. I had to put on $20 every 90 days ($15 every 90 days if I linked it to my credit card and had it top up automatically) and the rate was twenty-five cents a minute for the first ten minutes a day I used the phone, and ten cents a minute after that. So how many minutes my $15 or $20 got me depended on how I used the phone. Days that I talked more got me more minutes than days that I talked less.

Some carriers charge a lower per-minute rate but have a flat fees for using the phone — like I think AT&T or T-Mobile charges a dollar for every day you use the phone.

Really the only way to compare is to have a sense of how you are likely to use the phone, then run the numbers for the various options through that scenario and see which one works for you. (But like I said, it’s hard. You definitely need a spreadsheet.)

Because I didn’t need to use the phone very much, I didn’t particularly care about the per-minute rate, I just wanted to have a low minimum. Which is why I liked the Virgin Mobile plan.

But when my phone mysteriously disappeared in September 2012, I looked at it as an opportunity to stop paying $15 every 90 days for something I barely used.

Eighty per cent of my life, I am within arm’s reach of a phone. The other twenty per cent I am taking a break and do not want to talk on the phone. If you want to talk to me, you can leave a message and I will call you back when I am again within arm’s reach of the phone.

The exception to this is when I travel.

Traveling without a phone is often complicated, because everyone expects you to have a phone, so they set things up assuming you have a phone. Okay, call me when you get to town.

It is not actually all that complicated to arrange things so that a phone is not required, but in order to do that, you have to tell people you do not have a phone. And saying you do not have a phone makes you sound like some kind of nut job. What do you mean you don’t have a phone.

So I would like a phone when I travel, so I don’t have to make people go back in time and remember what it’s like to make plans without cell phone, or explain to people I don’t see very often why I don’t have a phone. I’m trying to fly under the radar here.

But I do not want to pay for a phone every month of my life just so I have it the few times a year when I am not at home.

At a nonprofit tech group I participate in, I learned about Google Voice, and that you could get a number that you could send texts from. This was a hugely useful piece of information, it meant that I could use my computer in place of a cell phone. Since I am nearly always in close proximity to my computer, this solved nearly all of my communication problems.

Except if I actually needed to talk to someone on the phone when I am not in a house or office with a phone, or with my computer in a place with wi-fi.

I had a trip in June that I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull off. I was on the trip and was discussing it a lunch with a friend whose family lives everywhere (mother in France, sister in London, father in Switzerland, in-laws in Mexico), and he said something that I thought was the usual pay-as-you-go suggestion.

I said, “Right, but you have to pay all the time to keep it active, what am I going to do, get a new phone every time I take a trip?”

He said, “No, not a new phone, just a SIM card. You need a GSM phone. An unlocked phone that you just put a SIM card into.”

After we were done with lunch and I was back to my computer, I looked into it a little bit and discovered ReadySIM, which was designed for Canadians who are visiting the U.S. and want a short-term phone plan to avoid the crazy roaming charges the would get otherwise. You get a SIM card with an unlimited phone plan that is good for 3, 7, 14, or 30 days. The three-day card is $15, the thirty-day card is $40.

I almost made it through the trip in June without a hitch.

I ran into traffic driving from Connecticut to Philadelphia and couldn’t call my friend and tell her where I was. I hadn’t told her I didn’t have a phone (had texted her from Google Voice) so she was calling and texting wondering what was going on. Other than that, I pulled it off (though I cheated a bit and borrowed a friend’s iPad, which made surreptitious GV texting easier).

But then close on the heels of that trip, I had a second trip set up for July which was going to be much more complicated. I decided I needed to try to figure out the phone.

I looked online for “unlocked GSM phone.” A whole bunch of places came up, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart. I’m like oh, great, this is going to be totally easy. Everyone has them. Prices ranged from $20 to $800, there were a million options.

Because it seems like this is going to work, no problem, I order a 14-day ReadySim SIM card. I get the full service one (talk-text-data), I’m totally ready, just need the phone.

But I’m totally busy recovering from the first trip. I do manage to stop at a nearby Radio Shack, but they don’t carry any unlocked phones. I’m busy. I take no further action. I have a meeting on Friday that is in the direction of all the Big Box retailers. I’m like this is fine, I’ll just deal with it on Friday.

So on Friday, I go to the Best Buy Mobile store, which is a Best Buy store that just carries phones and phone service, no tvs or refrigerators or anything like that, I’m thinking this is just what I need, and I walk in and as about unlocked GSM phones and the sales person says, “No we don’t carry any unlocked phones.” I say, but your website says you sell them. She says, “Right, we only sell those online.”


It is now Friday at 4pm. I am leaving on my trip Tuesday morning, my flight leaves at 9:30am. Ordering online, not a good option. And I was so confident that I could get the phone at Best Buy that I took the bus. Which means I can’t even stop at the other stores to see what they have.

I take the bus home and go online and start looking around and calling to see if anyone local carries unlocked GSM phones. I become obsessed with this. All the while kicking myself for being a procrastinating moron.

I call four or five places, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones, they say no. (Later I realize I should have just asked for unlocked phones, which I’m pretty sure are all GSM phones. I think people who didn’t know what a GSM phone was just said no because they didn’t know what I was talking about, even if they carried unlocked phones.)

I finally call this cell phone store off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones. They say, “Yup, we do. ” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah, sure. Uh huh.”

I find out exactly where they are located and tell them I’ll be in on Saturday.

After my work shift on Saturday, I drive through a thunderstorm to Raleigh and find the store, which happens to be in the same shopping center as TigerDirect, which I had called on Friday, and they told me they carry unlocked GSM phones, but didn’t have any in stock, they should be getting some in next week. Not so helpful when I was leaving on Tuesday morning.

I walk into the little cell phone store, I ask about unlocked phones, the guy is like “Mmmm … no, I don’t think so. We had one but we sold it.”

Gaahhh, round two.

A discussion ensues among the four people working in the store whether or not they have anything that would work for me and what it might be. They say they have a Windows phone that has never been used or put on a network, that might work. It’s over $250. Way more than I want to spend on something that may or may not work the way I want to. Plus Windows. No. They have one other possible option that is also out of my price range, $350 or something like that.

No go. I leave the store.

I decide to stop at TigerDirect, since it’s right there.

They have a little phone display with a bunch of different options and I look and notice that they do in fact have several phones in stock under the display shelf.

I talk to a sales person and tell him what I’m looking for and we look at the what they have and there are basically two that will work, a small Samsung and a Motorola Droid Pro.

I will say right now that I know people love their iPhones and iPads but I cannot tell you how much I hate those effing keyboards on those things. I hate having to switch between letters and numbers and clearly this is a deeply flawed system that everyone has to make a note about typos as part of their signature. Hello. Not good.

The Samsung was tiny and had a touch-screen keyboard. The Droid Pro had a fairly large screen and a physical keyboard. They were both the same price ($139). I bought the Droid Pro.


Stay tuned for Part II about how I actually set up the phone and got it to work (with pictures! I promise!)

15 Responses to “The Sometimes Phone, Part I”

  1. Liz Adams Says:

    Gosh, you’re spending a lot on phones. For years I’ve had nothing but Tracfone Wireless and a phone never costing more than $25 or so, and I don’t have to keep feeding it to keep it alive, just not let ALL the minutes run out. I use the phone rather rarely, but at less than about $10 per month average, that doesn’t bother even my poverty stricken self! my screen shows exactly how many days and minutes I have left, and as long as I load up again before it dies, I’m good to go. No dead spots, either. Oh well, a bit late, now that you’ve solved your phone problems! and I should say nobody paid me to say all this, just in case that’s a thought!

  2. lessisenough Says:

    I’m not sure if I understand the difference between saying you don’t have to “feed it to keep it alive” but you have to “make sure not all the minutes run out” and “load up again before it dies.” Isn’t that the same thing? You can’t just let it go and do nothing then when you want to use it again three months later pick it up and put $10 on it and have it work. You have to pay on a regular basis to keep it active.

    It sounds like what you have with Tracfone is pretty much the same as what I had with Virgin Mobile. (And I’m looking at the site right now and as far as I can tell it works the same as all the others. How many minutes you get, and what your per-minute cost is, and how long the minutes last before they expire, all depends on how much you pay in the first place and whether it’s a one-time purchase or a monthly plan.) The total for the whole time I had the Virgin Mobile phone averaged out to less than $5 a month. And I didn’t pay hardly anything for the phones themselves.

    The thing is that most people want a cell phone all the time, they like having a phone, so $10 a month feels very cheap and the whole thing seems perfectly reasonable. But I don’t want a cell phone at all, so anything I pay is too much. Unless I’m paying for it just when I want it, and then I’m willing to pay $20 or $30 for a week, because I actually need it for a week and it’s worth it to me. And then when the week is over I don’t have to deal with it anymore.

    So the amount I’m paying relative to how much I’m using it for seems out of whack, but for me it’s worth it because it’s a one-time expense rather than an ongoing expense. And that’s what I want.

    Also I didn’t mind paying full price for the phone I just bought, because I was basically looking at is as its own thing — not a phone per se, but a wi-fi enabled multifunction device. And really that’s what it is, there’s a ton of functionality to a smartphone even if you don’t use it as a phone. Which is one of the things I’m going to discuss in The Sometimes Phone, Part II (or III or IV … how much can I write about this? We’ll see…)

  3. Liz Adams Says:

    No, I don’t really think it’s the same. Right now I have over a year’s time on my phone, regardless of how many minutes I have left. So yes, I can pick it up in say eleven months’ time, my unused minutes will still be there ready to use. No need to keep attending to it. No contract to sign, no requirement to have more than a bare minimum of minutes available. Actually I now find I text more than I phone, since a hearing loss makes texting more appealing where I can get what I need said in limited space. I don’t think you’re a texting type..just kidding.

  4. lessisenough Says:


    Okay well maybe I’m just not looking at things right.

    How much did you have to put on to get the service to last for a year? I feel like all of the ones I looked at (including Tracfone) you needed to put on at least $100 to make it last for a year. If you go with a lower amount, the minutes expire sooner.

    Or is there some other way to do it that I’m not seeing?

    I feel like this is where all of the calculations get complicated. Do you want to MINIMIZE the total amount of money you spend, or do you want the MAXIMIZE the per-minute cost. Those are not likely to be the same strategy.

    And I can text from Google Voice so that’s no problem, I don’t need a phone for that at all.

  5. Liz Adams Says:

    I got a double minutes deal, about two years ago, approx $120 if I remember rightly. Still have about a year to go, so that comes out at less than $40 per year, actually cheaper than I originally realized, now I come to do the computation again. I don’t believe the minutes expire, though, but the time does, so when that happens yes, I’ll have to put more time on. But with double minutes for the life of the phone, this is working okay for me.

    And yes maximizing the cost can’t be the same as minimizing it! I didn’t follow that part of your reasoning.

    I was only teasing about the texting, though! I have a lot of trouble writing succinctly.

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Writing succinctly is a lot easier when you are typing on a tiny little keyboard. Maybe I should try writing blog posts on my phone :)

    I’ll see if I can explain the maximizing/minimizing thing differently. You always want to minimize the cost, but it depends on whether you are looking at getting the lowest the absolute cost (how much money are you spending) or the lowest relative cost (how much you are spending for what you are getting).

    So if you are going for the lowest absolute cost, you are minimizing the amount spent. If you are going for the lowest relative cost, you are minimizing the cost per minute (or cost per text, or whatever). So you might be spending more overall, but you are getting more for your money.

    Those require different calculations and different strategies.

    I was going for lowest cash outlay, which is why I took the auto-update plan ($60 a year) over the pay $100 and have it be good for a year plan. (Which may or may not even have been offered when I signed up, I don’t remember, that was a long time ago.)

    In order to truly know which is the best deal, you would have to look at how many minutes/texts you get with each plan, and how many minutes/texts you were likely to use. You also need to take into account special offers, like the double-minutes/extended time period deal that you got, and consider how long you are going to be using the phone for, so you can properly amortize the costs. Which are things you don’t always know when you’re sitting there trying to figure out what to get.

    In general with all of this, I think people are better off being a satisficers instead of a maximizers. Just pick something that seems reasonable and pay it and don’t worry about whether you’re getting the best deal.

  7. Liz Adams Says:

    Yes, I’m definitely a satisficer on this issue. After I fired my contract phone after their smallest plans got bigger and more expensive, I settled on tracfone and have lived happily ever after!

    But you are now agreeing with me that it’s a choice of which to minimize, outlay or cost per minute. That’s not actually what you said up there, where you talked about maximizing, not minimizing. But I will declare myself satisficed at this point!

  8. Gail Says:

    While I do have a Tracfone (that I originally got for emergency use while traveling, and is the dumbest of the ‘dumb phones’), I’m following your analysis and am looking forward to part two. I don’t text (while one can technically text on my $20 Tracfone, it is way too difficult). I might text if I had a phone where it wasn’t so difficult.

    You’ve focused on what is really a key point–just *when* exactly does one need a phone, or the ability to text? It isn’t when I’m at home or at work. I watched a video review of the phone you’ve chosen and its features are appealing. Your approach sounds very frugal!

  9. Liz Adams Says:

    Tracfone is the wireless service, and you can have a huge range of phone types to use with it. Including some with keyboard, making texting much easier. My son’s is much higher end than mine, as you can tell from the length of his texts! mine are much more telegraphic.

    On the subject of phone costs, I did away with my landline years ago, since it was just too expensive. Even the base costs were way up there, not worth it to me.

  10. bogart Says:

    Here via the Grumpies.

    I’m not sure, but would Consumer Cellular work? I have a regular plan with them, and it costs me a little under $20 per month for 200 minutes — clearly a lot more than you want to spend. But I know you can change their contract at any time, so you might be able to drop it (to $0, with no service) and then resume it again when you need it (I’m not sure, I forget if there is an activation fee that would negate the financial sensibleness of that for your circumstances)? I don’t know, but if you haven’t looked at them (and maybe you have), it might be worth checking; I have found their customer service to be good. Something I really like is that you can up your “plan” retroactively within any given month so if for some reason you suddenly spend 300 minutes talking on your phone while your plan is only for 200, you can switch to the 300-minute (well, 500-minute) $20 plan as long as the billing cycle hasn’t ended. Also, they alert you if you are getting close to or have gone over your contracted minutes.

    A basic CC phone is priced at $35, or you can a SIM card free for a former CC phone, and AT&T phone, or an unlocked phone.

    I have a really dumb phone and use it only to make calls. It can text, but no QWERTY, so not worth it — like you I use GV.

  11. lessisenough Says:


    Thanks for the suggestion. I know there are a bunch of different options, which are even more plentiful now that I have a phone. While looking at all of this, I learned about “BYOP” services that are around $10 per month.

    So I am waiting to get to the point where it will feel worth it for me to pay $10 a month for regular cell phone service. Not there yet.

    And the main problem is that I like being incommunicado. Once you have a cell phone, people expect you to use it, they expect to be able to call you and get in touch with you.

    So basically it’s not a money issue, but a philosophical one. But it makes for an interesting money discussion too, so that’s why I’m writing about it.

  12. bogart Says:

    Sure, but it may be that with CC you can just have the $10/month plan when you want it and drop it when you don’t (well, clearly you *can* do that, what I don’t know is what it costs to grab another $10 month — i.e. is there a hookup/activation charge that makes it not worthwhile). I just don’t know.

  13. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks. I will take a look at CC and see if there are on/off options. Or if it’s like the gas company where you can turn the gas off for the summer but it costs almost as much to turn it back on as it would just to pay the service charge for the summer, so it makes it not worth the effort to turn it off and on.

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