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Introducing Coverage Critic: Time to Kill the $80 Mobile Phone Bill Forever

A Quick Foreword: Although the world is still in Pandemic mode, we are shifting gears back to personal finance mode here at MMM. Partly because we could all use a distraction right now, and even more important because forced time off like this is the ideal time to re-invest in optimizing parts of your life such as your fitness, food and finances.

Canadian Readers – we have also collected some recommendations for you at a new Canadian Mobile Phone recommendations page.

Every now and then, I learn to my horror that some people are still paying preposterous amounts for mobile phone service, so I write another article about it.

If we are lucky, a solid number of people make the switch and enjoy increased prosperity, but everyone who didn’t happen to read that article goes on paying and paying, and I see it in the case studies that people email me when looking for advice. Lines like this in their budget:

  • mobile phone service (2 people): $160

“NO!!!!”
is all I can say, when I see such unnecessary expenditure. These days, a great nationwide phone service plan costs between and $10-40 per month, depending on how many frills you need.

Why is this a big deal? Just because of this simple fact:

  • Cutting $100 per month from your budget becomes a $17,000 boost to your wealth every ten years.

And today’s $10-40 phone plans are just great. Anything more than that is just a plain old ripoff, end of story. Just as any phone more expensive than $200* (yes, that includes all new iPhones), is probably a waste of money too.

So today, we are going to take the next step: assigning a permanent inner-circle Mustachian expert to monitor the ever-improving cell phone market, and dispense the latest advice as appropriate. And I happen to know just the guy:

Christian Smith, along with colleagues at GiveWell in San Francisco, circa 2016

My first contact with Chris was in 2016 when he was working with GiveWell, a super-efficient charitable organization that often tops the list for people looking to maximize the impact of their giving.

But much to my surprise, he showed up in my own HQ coworking space in 2018, and I noticed he was a bit of a mobile phone research addict. He had started an intriguing website called Coverage Critic, and started methodically reviewing every phone plan (and even many handsets) he could get his hands on, and I liked the thorough and open way in which he did it.

This was ideal for me, because frankly I don’t have time to keep pace with ongoing changes in the marketplace. I may be an expert on construction and energy consumption, but I defer to my friend Ben when I have questions about fixing cars, Brandon when I need advice on credit cards, HQ member Dr. D for insider perspectives on the life of a doctor and the medical industry, and now Chris can take on the mobile phone world.

So we decided to team up: Chris will maintain his own list of the best cheap mobile phone plans on a new Coverage Critic page here on MMM. He gets the benefit of more people enjoying his work, and I get the benefit of more useful information on my site. And if it goes well, it will generate savings for you and eventual referral income for us (more on that at the bottom of this article).

So to complete this introduction, I will hand the keyboard over to the man himself.

Meet The Coverage Critic

Chris, engaged in some recent Coverage Criticicism at MMM-HQ

I started my professional life working on cost-effectiveness models for the charity evaluator GiveWell. (The organization is awesome; see MMM’s earlier post.) When I was ready for a career change, I figured I’d like to combine my analytical nature with my knack for cutting through bullshit. That quickly led me to the cell phone industry.

So about a year ago, I created a site called Coverage Critic in the hopes of meeting a need that was being overlooked: detailed mobile phone service reviews, without the common problem of bias due to undisclosed financial arrangements between the phone company and the reviewer.

What’s the Problem with the Cell Phone Industry?

Somehow, every mobile phone network in the U.S. claims to offer the best service. And each network can back up its claims by referencing third-party evaluations. 

How is that possible? Bad financial incentives.

Each network wants to claim it is great. Network operators are willing to pay to license reviewers’ “awards”. Consequently, money-hungry reviewers give awards to undeserving, mediocre networks.

On top of this, many phone companies have whipped up combinations of confusing plans, convoluted prices, and misleading claims. Just a few examples:

  • Coverage maps continue to be wildly inaccurate.
  • Many carriers offer “unlimited” plans that have limits.
  • All of the major U.S. network operators are overhyping next-generation, 5G technologies. AT&T has even started tricking its subscribers by renaming some of its 4G service “5GE.”

However, with enough research and shoveling, I believe it becomes clear which phone companies and plans offer the best bang for the buck.  So going forward, MMM and I will be collaborating to share recommended phone plans right here on his website, and adding an automated plan finder tool soon afterwards. I think you’ll find that there are a lot of great, budget-friendly options on the market.

A Few Quick Examples:

Mint Mobile: unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 8GB of data for as low as $20 per month (runs over T-Mobile’s network).

T-Mobile Connect: unlimited minutes and texts with 2GB of data for $15 per month.

Xfinity Mobile: 5 lines with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 10GB of shared data over Verizon’s network for about $12 per line each month (heads up: only Xfinity Internet customers are eligible, and the bring-your-own-device program is somewhat restrictive).

Cricket Wireless: 4 lines in a combined family plan with unlimited calling, unlimited texting, and unlimited data for as low as $100 per month (runs on AT&T’s network).

Ting: Limited use family plans for under $15 per line each month.

[MMM note – even as a frequent traveler, serious techie and a “professional blogger”, I rarely use more than 1GB each month on my own Google Fi plan ($20 base cost plus data, then $15 for each additional family member). So some of these are indeed generous plans]

Okay, What About Phones?

With the above carriers, you may be able to bring your existing phone. But if you need a new one, there are some damn good, low-cost options these days. The Moto G7 Play is only $130 and offers outstanding performance despite the low price point. I use it as my personal phone and love it.

If you really want something fancy, consider the Google Pixel 3a or the recently released, second-generation iPhone SE. Both of these are amazing phones and about half as expensive as an iPhone 11.

——————————————-

Mobile Phone Service 101

If you’re looking to save on cell phone service, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the industry. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip over a lot of nuances in the rest of this post. If you’re a nerd like me and want more technical details, check out my longer, drier article that goes into more depth.

The Wireless Market

There are only four nationwide networks in the U.S. (soon to be three thanks to a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint). They vary in the extent of their coverage:

  • Verizon (most coverage)
  • AT&T (2nd best coverage)
  • T-Mobile (3rd best coverage)
  • Sprint (worst coverage)

Not everyone needs the most coverage. All four nationwide networks typically offer solid coverage in densely populated areas. Coverage should be a bigger concern for people who regularly find themselves deep in the mountains or cornfields.

While there are only four nationwide networks, there are dozens of carriers offering cell phone service to consumers – offering vastly different pricing and customer service experiences.

Expensive services running over a given network will tend to offer better customer service, more roaming coverage, and better priority during periods of congestion than low-cost carriers using the same network. That said, many people won’t even notice a difference between low-cost and high-cost carriers using the same network.

For most people, the easiest way to figure out whether a low-cost carrier will provide a good experience is to just try one. You can typically sign up for these services without a long-term commitment. If you have a good initial experience with a budget-friendly carrier, you can stick with it and save substantially month after month.

With a good carrier, a budget-friendly phone, and a bit of effort to limit data use, most people can have a great cellular experience while saving a bunch of money.

MMM’s Conclusion

From now on, you can check in on the Coverage Critic’s recommendations at mrmoneymustache.com/coveragecritic, and he will also be issuing occasional clever or wry commentary on Twitter at @Coverage_Critic.

Thanks for joining the team, Chris!

*okay, special exception if you use it for work in video or photography. I paid $299 a year ago for my stupendously fancy Google Pixel 3a phone.. but only because I run this blog and the extra spending is justified by the better camera.

The Full Disclosure: whenever possible, we have signed this blog up for referral programs with any recommended companies that offer them, so we may receive a commission if you sign up for a plan using our research. We aim to avoid letting income (or lack thereof) affect our recommendations, but we still want to be upfront about everything so you can judge for yourself. Specific details about these referral programs is shared on the CC transparency page. MMM explains more about how he handles affiliate arrangements here.

  • Dalton Cannizzo May 15, 2020, 5:46 pm

    Great post Chris & MMM,

    After reading this we just bought
    2 T-Mobile SIM cards from Amazon $10/ea = $20
    when they arrived:
    called T-Mobile and they charged my Credit Card $17.53/ea line for UNL + 2GBs/ea (tax incl)= $35 ish or $420/yr
    they ported over my old Verizon numbers which I was paying $113/mo for the pleasure of so $1356/yr
    total savings: $936/yr (excl the $20 for SIM cards)
    Amazing!
    Keep up the excellent work gents.

    Reply
  • Moo stache May 16, 2020, 4:43 pm

    I’m amazed no one has mentioned Tello which runs on the sprint network. In new England and the mid Atlantic Sprint has been excellent for us for decades. Plans start at $5 a month for 100 minutes and unlimited texting and are customized to what you want al la carte. For 200 minutes, 1G Data and unlimited texts I pay $8 a month. My son has 300 minutes and unlimited texting for $6 a month and no data. $15 a month is pretty much unlimited minutes data and texting. Customer serve is excellent with a real person that picks up the phone. Coverage is smoother, better and cheaper than Republic Wireless was. We ve had it over a year ( they just celebrated 2years) and been incredibly happy. Month to month and they auto charge your credit card.

    Reply
    • Coverage Critic May 17, 2020, 2:32 pm

      Tello is a great option for people who don’t use their phones a ton, don’t need extensive coverage, and want a great deal. While Tello isn’t listed in this post, it is in the longer list of recommendations at mrmoneymustache.com/coveragecritic/.

      Reply
  • Adam May 18, 2020, 11:51 am

    I switched to Google Fi to save some money. It worked well for about a year, then it all went horribly wrong. One day, out of the blue, my phone and my wife’s phone suddenly cut off. All we had was a new notification saying the SIM cards were not fully provisioned. We contacted Google Fi support, and they had no answers for us. All they would tell us was that they would email us back in 24-72 hours. The time passed, and we kept following up, but it took nearly three weeks(!) for them to even figure out what the problem was. During that time we were accused of missing payments (verifiably false), and to get the service restored we were required to pay off my wife’s phone in full. We weren’t allowed to even port the numbers out until the service had been restored. The customer service was easily the worst I’ve had from any company, and can best be summed up as: “we’ll get back to you in 24 hours”, then if you push back on that: “we’ll get back to you in 72 hours”. That was not the fault of any of the representatives, it just seems they have almost zero options to help you. All the systems are automated, they have no ability to override anything, so you have to so through some song and dance to make the system happy (the same system that falsely accused us of violating the terms of service). In the end it took about four weeks to get our phone numbers back and port them to a more reliable carrier. We feel very lucky we got our original numbers back at all. If you need your phone number for anything important, like running a business, be extremely cautious about signing on with Google Fi.

    Reply
  • maximus6004 May 19, 2020, 2:05 pm

    i work in photography, and the problem with this post is that im constantly using gps to find trail heads. so i need a lot of data. on top of that im constantly communicating through social media and i use hotspot to upload videos for review and posts to my social media. im also going to online school and also use my hotspot for access to my online classes. non of these plans from what i read give any hotspot. you know to save on an internet and cable bill every month.

    do you guys have a solution to this? i have been able to use buffer a service that posts for me so when i am near internet i can post months in advance. otherwise i need hotspot. anyone have any solutions

    Reply
    • Coverage Critic May 20, 2020, 11:39 am

      Mobile hotspot is an awesome feature! Nearly all of the plans listed include it. In most cases, hotspot access is unrestricted and drains from plans’ regular data allowances. A few notable exceptions to that:
      -Xfinity Mobile’s unlimited plan throttles hotspot pretty intensely (600Kbps)
      -Some of Total Wireless’ plans may not include hotspot. The plans that do usually limit hotspot use to 10GB per line.

      Reply
  • Derek J. Augustine May 19, 2020, 2:30 pm

    I can not believe people still pay for post-paid plans now a days. We switched to Verizon pre-paid a couple years ago and we’re currently paying ~$65 a month total for two devices each with their own pool of 6GB of data which is more than enough for _most_ people. We have tried other plans on other MVNO providers, but in our area, nothing touches the coverage Verizon’s network provides.

    Reply
  • Melissa May 20, 2020, 8:51 am

    Although Total Wireless is a bit more expensive the reason I like it is that you can add on an extra 5 GB of data for $10 at any time and it doesn’t expire. Total offers more flexibility than the other plans out there if your data usage tends to fluctuate.

    Reply
    • MartinaMSan May 22, 2020, 12:02 am

      We have Total Wireless as well, and we like that we can just change the plan each month as we need …

      Reply
  • Garrett May 20, 2020, 8:10 pm

    Why wasn’t the big debate over prepaid vs post paid in here? AT&T prepaid is $35/Month no credit check, no contract. While post pay is contract and credit check at $70+ month.

    Reply
  • taffyexpat May 22, 2020, 9:15 am

    For folks in the UK, there is a great site called http://www.billmonitor.com. Completely free to use and analyses how you use your phone and what contract you should be on. SIM only always the way to go for me.

    Reply
  • Melissa May 24, 2020, 3:01 pm

    Hello, I am so glad you posted this about phones as we’ve recently tried out what we felt would be a great option. We recently went the low cost route on Twigby and we are very happy with that service in our home area. It uses both Verizon and Sprint networks. Our problem is we are often in the “cornfield” as you mention-and the Twigby service is very spotty in some rural areas we frequent for work or pleasure. (I had thought we could potentially move the whole family to this service but unfortunately it’s too questionable to rely on) Here is my question–a friend mentioned that these lower cost options use “old outdated services” that are no longer being used by the big carriers and thus being leased out to low cost carriers. He feels that is why our service is spotty, whereas we have very steady service with our Verizon service direct from Verizon. Do you have any insight on this, how we can avoid it–if it is even avoidable?

    Reply
    • Coverage Critic May 26, 2020, 12:56 pm

      Hi Melissa,

      I think Twigby’s roaming on Verizon’s network is only for voice and text. If you’re getting spotty data coverage, I expect it’s probably because you only have access to Sprint’s network for data.

      I’m glossing over some nuances here, but carriers that piggyback on the major network operators don’t use old, outdated services. The lower cost carriers I recommend have access to the same modern, LTE networks that the major carriers use. In some cases, subscribers on low-cost carriers will have limitations like lower priority during periods of network congestion.

      Reply
  • Larry Miller May 24, 2020, 9:23 pm

    First off, it’s good to see a piece about mobile phones by someone who is not a member of the Apple religion.

    I have an unlimited plan for 4 phones that runs $128 a month with a couple bells and whistles added on.. It’s MetroPCS that runs on the T-Mobile network. No one I talked to could even come close to this and while I thought is was high, felt pretty good about it… until now.. I may not have been looking in the right places. I have check out your recommendations and see if they can do the add-ons I have been using.

    Reply
  • Adam May 25, 2020, 8:46 pm

    Wow this could not have been a better timed post for us. We have been racking our heads between staying on Viaero (who we really love for local coverage… truly unlimited data on local network, but roaming on AT&T can throttle badly and they bait/switched us on some discounts) or combining onto my parent’s Verizon plan which is the only way to get down to Viaero’s price point. Thanks to this article we are definitely going to give Total Wireless a try instead… $25 cheaper, no commitment, and cheaper phones. Worse case if we don’t like it, we’ll have a phone that is cheaper anything Viaero sells, and we’ll be eligible for “new line of service” prices again. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • Adam June 1, 2020, 8:38 pm

      We switched to Total Wireless yesterday based on this article and have never regretted something so badly so quickly. After a couple hours our devices/numbers disappeared from our online account so we have no account access and none of the 8 reps we have talked to speak enough English to even understand the problem. Calls have been great but data speeds thus far have been completely unusable, 0.08mbs at best so far. Going to port back out before we lose our numbers. Wow.. just shocked at how terrible this is and can’t believe something recommended on MMM would be this bad. No more mvmo for us after this. Just wow.

      Reply
  • Arrgo May 29, 2020, 9:00 am

    I just switched to Tello a few weeks ago after being a Sprint customer for about 5 years. Tello uses the Sprint network so I was able to use my existing phone. Also they were running a few promotions which made it an even better deal. So far everything has been great. You can adjust your amount of minutes and data at anytime if needed. Im not a heavy data or minutes user so it works out to a big savings for me. Look at the amount you are really using then select the plan configuration that works for you. They have a good referral program also. If you use my referral code: ( P394371F ) you will get $10 in Tello credit you can use towards your bill (I’ll get $10 also) I did this when I signed up and its a nice bonus for your account just for signing up.

    Reply
  • Married to a Swabian June 1, 2020, 6:05 am

    Clearly, saving a few dollars on a cell phone plan is the biggest crisis we face in the “U”SA today.

    Reply
  • DS June 1, 2020, 10:40 am

    Magicjack is much cheaper than a cell. It is a voice over internet (VOIP) phone. Think of it as a landline that uses the internet. We use MJ as our primary number and when we are away from home we forward our magicjack to our one cell with a cheap plan. Majicjack also has an app to run over your cell via data or wifi. One potential disadvantage is that like a landline magicjack can’t text. But voice calls are so much more efficient and personable that I don’t miss texting.

    Our cheap cell phone plan is with Chatr in Canada. Chatr piggybacks off the Rogers network so coverage is more widespread than other networks.

    Reply
  • jamie Cornehlsen June 2, 2020, 2:55 pm

    I live in the US (Rochester, NY) I go to Toronto often for business. I would like to get a cell phone with a Canadian area code (416, 647, 437) I would like it for when I am in Canada and to receive calls from Canada when back in the US. Any recommendations?
    Thanks,
    Jamie

    Reply
  • Papa Foxtrot June 5, 2020, 8:51 pm

    Is 4 lines for $100 now a battle cry for many networks? (Go Cricket!) How are people spending more than $60 per line? In general, forget about the traditional networks, there is not that much difference in quality between networks anymore (if there ever was a real difference).

    Reply
    • Coverage Critic June 8, 2020, 2:04 pm

      A handful of carriers seem to be offering deals with 4 lines for $100.

      I’d say the network question is awfully location-dependent. If you live in a big city and don’t travel much, odds are good that you could get decent coverage from any of the major networks. On the other hand, there are still lots of regions where some networks offer way better performance than others.

      Reply
  • Jeff June 7, 2020, 2:24 pm

    We have spectrum mobile (Verizon network), which is $14 a month for 1 GB. It’s been working pretty well for us, and we bought cheap iPhone 7s, but you can go for higher end phones if you want (not frugal!) or you can bring in your own phone. Although 1GB isn’t much, I found that you can jump on the Spectrum/time warner cable wifi for free if you are in range, and so I have used a fair amount of data without getting charged! :)

    Reply
  • Al June 16, 2020, 11:14 am

    I switched from Telus to Public Mobile after my contract was up. I have less data now but I don’t need as much anymore. My bill went from $85 + tax to $24 + tax. Switching was easy. I got a PM SIM card from Amazon.ca since the stores were closed. Once I had it, I put it in my phone and set up an account on Public Mobile, choosing to keep my current number. Within 5 minutes my phone was on Public Mobile and I received a goodbye email from Telus. If you set up AutoPay you can save $2/month. For every friend you refer you can save another $1/month and they get $10 off. My referral code is O0Y6Y4 if anyone wants to try Public Mobile. They operate on the Telus network so I’ve had no coverage issues at all. Thanks for the great tip for Canadian readers.

    Reply
    • Coverage Critic June 17, 2020, 10:39 am

      Great to hear Al! Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Reply
      • brandon June 19, 2020, 7:20 am

        Public Mobile for the Win! While in college, after receiving a shocking cell phone bill of over $1000 for a 60 day period with another provider, i switched to public mobile and have now had a sub $25 phone bill going on 7 years. talk and text nationally, with 1.5 gigs of data for something like $21.40 monthly – yes please!

        Reply
  • Debt Hater June 18, 2020, 8:31 am

    I’m also an owner of a Moto G7 Play, and have been using Mint Mobile for the past two years. Previously I was on Republic Wireless but wanted some more data, and Mint provided that at the same cost. I use the 8GB plan and pay the $20 a month by paying the entire year in advance. T-Mobile’s coverage has only gotten better so I have no complaints about that.

    The G7 Play is really an excellent phone if you are using T-Mobile as it contains all their 4G LTE bands and is actually a phone that still fits in your hand. I wish more phone makers would make phones that were less than 6 inches these days, but it’s really slim pickings.

    Reply
  • Karl H June 24, 2020, 10:58 am

    We have kept our major carrier (ATT) for at least the last 10 years, and the actual plan is not bad, at $54/ month for 4 lines. The real scam from my point of view is the “must have” phones and the insurance plans they recommend(I have 2 teenagers). When our son broke his expensive phone a few years ago we bought a ATT burner model at target or walmart for less than $100, and learned it did everything he wanted at a fraction of the price. You can buy any pay as you go ATT phone at the box store for less than $100 and take it to the ATT store to get it linked to your plan. Its much better than paying 30-50/month for the next 3 years for the latest iPhone with an insurance plan.

    Reply
    • Coverage Critic June 26, 2020, 11:10 am

      $54 per month for 4 lines is great!

      I agree with you about phones and insurance. Most people don’t benefit a whole lot from top-of-the-line devices, and insurance is typically a bad deal. Sometimes a totally awful deal.

      Reply
  • Tarik Pierce June 27, 2020, 1:46 am

    I use Skype $2.99 Unlimited Calls to the USA plan. All you need is WIFI and you can call anywhere in the states for less than $3. It works when you travel overseas too. You can also purchase a cheap Skype phone number for $6 per month and use that to completely get rid of your cell phone bill. I’ve been using this setup for years and I get a US phone number for a much cheaper cost. I never understood why people pay so much money for a traditional cell phone plan. It’s a complete ripoff!

    Reply
  • BD FIREsolo June 29, 2020, 5:30 pm

    I’ve been using Ting for about 8 years now, with my phone bill averaging about $15-20 per month. I think another big point to consider is wasteful data usage and how much you actually need the data you are using. I find that friends and family often don’t think of using data as ‘spending’ it, but the plans really make it add up. Simple switches like waiting to be on WiFi to stream videos or downloading songs for offline use have led me to save a lot of money.

    Reply

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