Smart Spending

How To Save Thousands with Smaller Smartphone Carriers

Big things usually cost big bucks.

Your car, for example, probably takes up a big piece of your financial pie as well as space in your driveway. Same goes for your house — it’s almost certainly the biggest thing you own (or rent), and the amount of money you spend on it matches its size and importance in your life.

But if you don’t take a minute to think small, you might overlook one of the biggest drains on the modern American household budget:

Your smartphone.

That little personal computer in your pocket probably cost you a whole lot more than you realize. I know mine did.

Itty-bitty Phone, Great Big Bill

When I bought my beloved iPhone 4S, I did it the way most non-rich people do: I took the phone for “free” in exchange for signing up for a two-year plan with Verizon. Ditto for my husband. The service was great, the phone was amazing, and I paid $175 every month for the privilege of asking Siri for iffy-at-best driving directions.

Along the way, one of our children transformed into a text-happy middle schooler, so we got her a cheap flip phone with a pay-as-you-go plan.

And boy, did she go! Her texting habit brought her bill up to about $55 each month.

As I looked for ways to get serious about saving money and keep a much more frugal budget, it was clear that our $230-per-month cellphone habit had to change.

Down the Cellphone Carrier Rabbit Hole

Allow me to preface this by saying that I did all this research so you don’t have to. It took hours of internet time, and it definitely made me want to throw my phone out the window more than once, but I got the goods.

You’re getting ripped off.

Seriously, if you’re still locked into a contract with one of the Big Four carriers, you might as well be lighting your money on fire every month — is there an app for that?

The big cell phone networks are the ones that you’ve heard of: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. These are known as Tier 1 carriers, and they own all the wires and infrastructure that runs the internet. If you still use them, you don’t need me to tell you how expensive that cellphone bill is every month.

Mine came out to $2,760 a year.

The Tier 2 carriers, on the other hand, are the little guys.

Some of them have names you might recognize, like Virgin Mobile or MetroPCS. These companies don’t own all the internet stuff — they just buy some extra bandwidth from the big guys and pass it on to you. Their costs are a lot lower because their overhead doesn’t include any responsibility for maintaining those networks or for paying ginormous executive salaries.

And that’s really all you need to know about that.

How Ditching My Cellphone Plan Paid off for Me

Armed with a basic, low-tech understanding that I was looking for a good Tier 2 carrier, I scoured the internet for them.

Turns out, there are a ton.

And I looked at them all to break down their pricing. It can get complicated pretty quickly– each plan has its own breakdown of what you’ll get for minutes, texts and data usage.

I wrote it all down and got out a calculator to figure out what would work best for my family of four.

I ended up choosing Ting, which has a unique pricing system that lumps everyone in your family together and only charges you for what you actually use. I ended up spending only about $50 per month — for all three of us.

That’s a savings of $180 per month, or $2,160 per year.

That’s real money, people.

Which Tier 2 Carrier Is Right for You?

That’s a little like asking about the meaning of life.

It all depends on where you’re coming from and where you hope to get to. Ting works really well for me, but you might discover that another little guy has better service in your neighborhood or a better deal for your lifestyle as a madcap Instagrammer or a talk-to-mom-every-day kinda gal.

To help you make the best choice for your wallet, here’s what you need to keep in mind as you do the research:

  • Check a coverage map. Before you do anything else, look at a coverage map to see which of the Big Four cell carriers work in your area. Zoom in on the neighborhoods you go to most frequently and nix any choices with spotty coverage.
  • Understand whose network your Tier 2 guy is using. As you read all about small carrier plans, be sure to understand which network you’d be getting. If you don’t have great AT&T service in your area, you have to axe all the Tier 2s who use AT&T’s bandwidth, too.
  • Know your data needs. Check your most recent cell phone bill for your data usage, number of texts and minutes of voice used. This will be crucial info for comparing costs based on usage as you narrow your choices.
  • Know your phone’s capabilities. Not all phones can be used on all networks, so check to see if a plan is BYOD (bring your own device) or if you need to buy a new phone. If you can BYOD, make sure your phone will work on their network.

With that information in mind, you’re ready to grab a calculator and crunch the numbers about what you’d spend for your typical usage. Find the best plan for your habits, and you can kiss your money pit of a cell phone bill goodbye.

It can literally save you thousands of dollars each year.

Which carrier has saved the most for you?

About the author

Beth Trach

Elizabeth Trach is a writer and editor living in Newburyport, MA. She also sings in a band, grows almost all her own food, and occasionally even cooks it. You can catch up on all her adventures in frugal living and extreme gardening at Port Potager.


  • I use ultra mobile. I pay 29 each month, always have internet, service, and can call the Dominican Republic everytime I el want with no issues it alse has wifi calling that when I’m in the DR I can receive and make calls withought roaming. If you want roaming you can add 5 dollars as you need it. Remember to check your coverage. I live in ALPHARETTA, GA.

  • I went from Verizon to Choice then now I have Straighttalk and paying $66.00 a month I don’t get service were I live if I want to make a call it says I’m roaming so I have to pay extra another $15 so in reality you really don’t save money

  • I got 2 phones, one free with purchase in a 2 year contract coming off of a 50 per month unlimited plan with smart phone, att said it would be same price but they lied!! I pay 248 per month for 2 iPhones with unlimited service, with 43 dollars going towards the one phone that was not free, I cannot wait to get out of this it nearly kills me every month!! Then add direct tv for another 150 per month, part of the deal, for one year promo price but doubling in August!!!! What can I do???

    • Have you heard about cable pass and I think HD Streamz. It’s an app you use with fire stick but I’m not sure if that’s the name of it. Cable pass is an app where you can get thousands of channels for $17 a month and you can share with family. They say you have to jailbreak your fire stick but I haven’t so far. I don’t know who your internet provider is but I have Spectrum which was running a promotion at the time for $40(normally $80). I hope this helps. If I find the exact name of the other one, I’ll try and find you. It has 4,000 channels. Good luck.

  • One important issue that no one has brought up yet is checking whether the carrier’s customer service operations are U.S. or Canada based. I changed from Verizon to Sprint a year ago only to find out that almost all of its customer service operation is based in the Philippines. About half of the customer service reps don’t speak understandable English (emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAable and limited vocabulary usually) and don’t understand American English very well either, making communication difficult, lengthy and tedious. If you ask for a supervisor you are likely to face the same problem. I am getting rid of Sprint mainly for this reason. Saving some bucks by going to a second tier carrier is attractive but not if customer service is based in a location where the reps are likely to be difficult to communicate with.

  • Tengo èxfinity de comcast y me llego una factura de 1.438.87 de un mes por usar la data creo que están tratando de robarme

  • I have METRO PCS. 2 lines 0f everything for $92.00 a month. $12.00 Is for insurance ($6.00 each line) Cut my Bill in half – literally. Been with them almost a year and am VERY happy!

  • I’m did my research years ago and the viop phone cost is too much for me. You have to have internet and the viop package, which would have cost me over 100.00 a month. I have gone with tracefone for the last 17 years and have not had a plan come close to it, the minutes rollover and sometimes I only pay 20.00 for up to 3 Months of use.

  • Surprising to me NO ONE MENTIONED forgetting about cell phone service and using a VoIP home phone provider.

    In days past anyone using a telephone used a landline. Today we have another variant to land line with our home phone service, is is VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). VoIP works the same as wired phones but is much less costly.

    Why expose yourself to an at fault accident, embarrassment during meetings, loss of appetite from interruptions, constant interruptions and a host of other similar difficulties? GET SMART GET A STATIONARY HOME PHONE AND TOSS THE DREAD INTERRUPTERS WE CALL CELLULAR PHONES.

    The notion no one can do without constant availability to a phone service in our hands has been disproved by millions over centuries of phone use via a stationary phone. Who cares is the boss can’t call you while your in the middle of traffic or your spouse has to go to the grocery because she can not get in contact with you on the way home. Get rid of the cell phones and save even more than this article suggest.

    • In this day and age our cell phones are used for much more than just a phone. It’s it a mini computer in my hand. I use it for keeping in touch with clients via email or text. I believe in great customer service and that means being able to be reached and not have messages puked up. I use it as a map to get anywhere I need to go in the cities. I would have no way to know how to get around without it. We do have a land line but only for recording purposes for clients to produce testimonials or anything else for our radio station. I can go on, so just doing away with us just NOT feasible in this day and age.

  • U. S. Cellular is 35.00 for iOS fone and 40.00 for smart fone unlimited everything. U can get Kyrocera or Samsung Moto E or G right now for 29.00 to 49.00 at Walmart. Excellent coverage.

  • I couldn’t possibly save thousands a year on my phone, and I don’t pay much more per year on my phone than I pay per month on my car. I have Republic Wireless, Moto E, and I get unlimited wifi and cell calls, texts, and Data (3G) for $25 per month plus tax, which totals $29.85 per month, charged automatically to my credit card on the 22nd of each month. That’s $358.20 per year, and since I have a QuicksilverOne, the cost is dropped down to $352.83 per year with my 1.5% cash back rewards. I also am not paying interest on this card since I use it for a large portion of my bills after making a payment to clear the available credit, and my total monthly payments are more than my credit limit, and as such more than my prior balance. More specifically, I use it for a total of $529.96 in bills each month ($500 credit limit), which saves me $7.95 per month, which is $95.40 per year. That’s like getting over 3 months per year free on my phone bill!

  • 1st of all… My 23 years in the wireless industry has sought me that even though they use the same network, it does make them equal. Most of the “Tier 2” carriers you speak of are actually owned 100% by one of the “Big 4”. metroPCS is owned (and operated by) T-Mobile. Virgin & boost are owned (and operated by) Sprint. Cricket is owned (and operated) by AT&T.

    However, the issue is not always the access to the towers… Rather it is the capabilities and features available on the network through the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator). Not all features are available from an MVNO… things such as Wi-Fi calling and MANY other features that we take for granted.

    Also, the “Tier 2’s” data speeds are slower (generally speaking) than those of the “Tier 1’s”.

    I currently use Verizon and for a family plan on unlimited, I pay the same per line as the “Tier 2” providers. If I only had a single line I “might” consider using something like “Straight Talk”, but there are many little features that a “Tier 2” does not provide.

  • There are two distinct problems with tier 2 providers. The first is roaming. As an example, Sprint and Verizon both work on CDMA technology and have roaming agreements (meaning you can use Sprint towers as a Verizon customer and vice versa). Further, many (if not all) of the phones are now cross compatible with the GSM networks and can therefore be used in many foreign countries (call your provider for info). Tier 2, however, is usually tied to ONE network (ex: Boost and Virgin are Sprint network only).

    The other issue is internet. If you use a lot of bandwidth, it will be slower on the prepaid (think of this as premium service vs regular). The idea, of course, is to keep the big guys in business (seriously, tier 2’s own no towers! If tier 1 providers go under, there’s no service for tier 2’s to buy!).

    Having said that, if your credit is not good, you just don’t NEED the speed, or you rarely travel, tier 2’s can be a good option.

  • Baffles me why anyone would pay $200 a month for a phone bill. Straight Talk costs me $45 a month. Works with any phone you want, even iPhone. ( iPhone 6 is $199 at Walmart right now) same EXACT service as a contract phone. No brainer.

  • If you use a fair amount of data, Ting is not the way to go – it can get very expensive. I found that TMobile Simply Prepaid up to 10 GB for $60/month is least expensive, but it still slows down since I stream a lot, even when I use their Binge On service.

  • Hi I have been with ATT for years…it is outrageous how much they charge am paying $140 each month & have iPhone 7+ ….any suggestions on shall I change service , carrier or ? Thank you bunch

    • Yes!! I guess loyalty doesn’t mean anything anymore. I’m about ready to dump them this next go around if I don’t get some major satisfaction.

  • Paid for mine up front. I’m happy my bill isn’t that much but, Then again, I don’t have to pay my children’s bills any more. All companies take advantages of the consumer. It’s called “GREED”. Any company that insist on a 2 year contract knows after 3 or 4 months, You will be dissatisfied and you can’t do any thing about it “except pay”. Cell phone is one of the highest bills TRUE but, I believe the cable company’s are right there with the cell phone company.

    • It is not “Greed”, it is called offering a service. If you don’t like the price, go somewhere else. When you are in business, you are there to provide a service or product and make a profit… If profit is not made, the company will go out of business!

      Why is it that people don’t understand that a company will charge what the market will pay. You don’t have to get your service from someone (a company) you feel charges more than you are willing to pay. Profits are not bad, they allow for innovation and progress. Without profits, companies go bankrupt!

  • After reading this very informative article, I also began doing research about cell phone services in my area. I did find many companies that offer the same services I currently receive from AT&T, for a substantially lower cost each month, BUT how can I make certain the service is also equal or better when it comes to connectability? They all “SAY” they service my area; however, many aquaintences of mine receive “spotty” service at best. I reside in the Pocono mountains which makes many “satellite” type service poor. Many companies up here take advantage of only giving customers partial information, and/or exaggerating their capabilities to get you as a customer. I feel they do this because they know what a hassle it is to change services, and phone numbers; therefore, they hope that people will just stay with them while receiving spotty or sub par service.
    Thank you so very much for your article, it was a very informative and I enjoyed it immensely. I hope you can help me with the questions that I have asked.
    From my family to yours, enjoy the holidays, and we look forward to more articles after the new year.

    • Chuck,
      Thank you for that sweet message! We here at Credit Simple hope you have a wonderful holiday season as well. I think in your case, it might be a good idea to go with your friends’ reviews of those companies. If they are getting spotty coverage in the Poconos, you’re probably going to get it too. I lived in the Cascades in Washington and no matter how good companies said their reception was, we always knew it was always cruddy at our house. Go with your gut on this one, Chuck. Thanks for reading!

    • My family still lives in the Poconos and they have Verizon and T-mobile. When I was up there I started with sprint, horrible, t-mobile was better but had horrible customer service. We’ve been with Verizon for the last several years and found them to have the best service coverage area as well as customer service. My parents house still has parts of house where they can not make a phone call but have been able to text and this has been a huge leap since with the other carriers they lost service about 10-15 min away from house at the base of the mountain on way up to there house. Hope this helps. I miss living up there but definitely do not know how I lived without great cell coverage so long.

    • Yes I agree the service is not always good I work in a Hospital and I get dropped calls all the time. Also the phones do not work that great they freeze up even though it’s cheaper the services is poor.

    • I can only offer my experience, but I have used Verizon, Sprint, Straightalk, and had to supplement a landline while at home. The internet didn’t work while I was home and in a lot of other places. I became frustrated and gave AT&T a try and have been happy every since. The phone I paid for with Sprint couldn’t be transferred to any other carrier including Verizon and I had to get a Tier 2 company which is Boostmobile and gave the phone to my daughter she hates it because it doesn’t work worth a flip even outside of the house. Mind you we live in a rural area I’d suggest just staying with a Tier 1 carrier. I travel all over for work and the only service that still worked in the mountains and in other areas that people complained about is AT&T. It’s widely known here that nothing but AT&T will work in Missouri. I’d check with friends and the locals and see what coverage they have and which carrier before I’d switch or do anything. Best of luck to you.

      • Ohh and I’m not in a contract plan either it’s actually a mix of prepay and contract. I get a bill, but I’m not locked into anything. I also get a discount on my Directv bill too.

    • See what it costs to break the contract and how long you have left and just see what costs less waiting for contract to run out or staying with them and don’t forget to add costs if you need to buy a new phone

      • To those that do not kno, texting on most carriers are unlimited so is long distance and all of them have shoddy service at times, So whats really important is where you live and who has the best coverage in your area. I am an over the road truck driver and use my phone a lot in diffrent calling areas and i will tell you the truth, they all have dead spots,they all drop calls on you while your on the phone. They all have no service avaliable in certain areas. So find the one thats works for you in your area that is the least expensive and thats it ,,,,,,,pay up!

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