Smartphone for a smart Mama: Upgrading frugally

This spring, I wrote about how my husband and I were debating switching to smartphones. Our cell phone contract was up, giving us a window to make the leap.

My concern, of course, was the cost. Not just of the physical phones, but the monthly data plan and the temptation to purchase apps and other downloads. As I wrote, it’s way too easy to allow your tech wants to become expensive “needs.”

We talked with several friends and family members, compared price packages, and researched, researched, researched.

Finally, after months of debate (and years of being behind the tech curve), we recently leaped into unlimited minutes, texts and 2 GB of data each.

Best of all: Our new phone plan costs only $10 more per month total than we were paying for 700 shared minutes, 250 texts each and no data.

Of course, there are trade-offs. I’ll get to those.

In the end, we went with Straight Talk, a no-contract cell service sold through Wal-Mart. We had to buy our phones outright, and now pay $45 a month plus sales tax each for its Unlimited* plan (Note the asterisk, as the data isn’t actually limitless). You can enroll in auto pay, or buy the service cards in store or online.

Different Straight Talk phones operate on different networks. It was important to us to have service in rural eastern North Dakota, as that’s where we travel frequently, so we made sure the phones we purchased were designated CDMA-V, indicating they would use the Verizon network. (A Straight Talk CDMA-S phone would work on the Sprint network, as I understand it.) The codes are prominently displayed online, though I had trouble finding them in-store.

Because my husband loves his iPod Touch, I encouraged him to go with an iPhone. We were able to get a refurbished iPhone 4 for $300 through the Wal-Mart website. Not the latest and greatest, but that’s not what we need.

I wanted an Android, as I’m more familiar with that platform, so chose the cheap basic Galaxy Samsung Centura. The phone was $100 — a steal for a smartphone, it seems — and has so far been a good way for me to tiptoe into the smart world. I am a bit disappointed in the camera. (Because it doesn’t autofocus, barcode scanning apps don’t work well on it, and I was so looking forward to having a comparison shopping tool in my pocket. Also, there’s no flash.) Other than that can’t complain about the phone.

I can complain about the customer service. While my hubby was able to activate his phone with no problem, mine wasn’t properly scanned at the store which led to three hour-long stints on hold, conflicting advice from the customer reps and an all-around hair-pulling experience as I had to go back to the store and swap phones. But, as they say, you get what you pay for, and apparently you don’t get great customer service when you pay $45 a month for a data plan. (You also can’t tether devices on Straight Talk, which may be important to some.)

The activation headache aside, I’ve been pleased with our new cell service. We got to keep our numbers, the call quality has been good, and I’m now able to answer my inane trivial wonderings in the car.

I also haven’t paid for an app, and don’t plan on it.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be a recommendation for Straight Talk, simply an explanation of my experience for fellow frugalists out there looking to upgrade to a smartphone. I have not been compensated by any of the companies mentioned.