Money-Saving Cell Phone Alternatives

Internet PhoneHow many cell phone minutes do you use each month? Chances are it’s a lot fewer than you’re paying for.

But even if you do talk a lot, cell phones aren’t always the cheapest way to make those calls. Sure, there are times when only a cell phone will work. But if you do a lot of your calling from home, switch to one of these alternatives to save big each month.

I’ll start with the cheapest option and work up to the most expensive (but still cheaper than buying minutes from the cell phone company.)

Google has a service creatively known as “Call phones from Gmail” that lets you call any phone in the US and Canada from within Gmail. They recently announced it will be free for all of 2013. I tried this out the other day after getting fed up with AT&T’s poor cell phone reception in my apartment, and the calls were crystal clear. The caller on the other end said it sounded like I was in the other room talking.

All you have to do to start making calls is install a plugin and log into Gmail. They also offer free video chats, which I didn’t test.

Another option is magicJack Plus. While the original magicJack required a computer to use, this one works with or without a computer. And that’s a game-changer, because who wants to wait for a computer to boot up before making a call? Just plug the device into your modem, and after a brief registration you’re up and running. You can even transfer your current number.

They’re doing a free 30-day trial right now, so check it out. After that it’s $20 a year.

Finally, there’s Ooma. Don’t ask me how they came up with a name like that, but according to Consumer Reports, Ooma is tops in call quality bar none. That includes land lines from AT&T, Verizon and others.

The most expensive of the three, it’s also pretty darn convenient. You don’t need a computer up and running to use Ooma. Yes, it works through the internet, but it plugs straight into your modem. Just like MagicJack, you plug your home phone into the Ooma device and start talking.

Ooma costs anywhere from $130-$150 for the device, although I saw it on sale at Costco for $100 recently. The only other costs after that are about $45 a year in government taxes and fees. You may be able to save that in one month by reducing your cell phone minutes.

My take: If you don’t mind using a headset and sitting at your computer, the first option is best. But if you like using an actual phone and enjoy the flexibility to move around the house, the other two are better options.

All three of these services offer unlimited calls over the internet for basically zero dollars. If you’re on the fence about reducing your cell phone minutes, take the leap and give one of these a try. Talking over the internet is a heck of a lot more cost efficient that busting your budget with the cell phone company.

The call quality is much better, too.

Related posts:

Low-Cost Options for Cell Phone Service

Ways to Save on your Cell Phone Bill

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Phone Scams are Big Business for Criminals

The Ripoff Alert is an ongoing series alerting you to the latest scams and ripoffs. What to look out for and what you need to know to stay safe. This is #23 in the series. 

Smartphones are everywhere. I remember a year or two ago there were many people I knew who still had old style flip phones. I myself had one until last fall. Now just a few remain who haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon.

We carry these things everywhere with us – to work, on road trips and to the grocery store. Now that so many of us own these mini computers, we have to take a minute to think about how we can protect the information stored on these devices.

Kiplinger has a list of things we need to be aware of concerning phone scams:

1. Your smart phone holds a mother lode of data

2. Think before you click

3. Scammers cast a wide net

4. That big bonus prize? It’s bogus

5. “Toll fraud” could be down the road

6. You can fight back

My thoughts are below.

1. They list some things we now do on our phones including banking, checking Facebook and calling your Mom. You have to start thinking of your phone as a computer. As such, it holds a lot of personal data that could be used against you in the wrong hands.

Lots of folks password protect their computers, and I recommend doing the same for your phone. That’s your first line of defense if your phone is lost or stolen.

2. They offer a common sense solution: “If it’s too good to be true or too enticing to be legitimate, ignore it.” That applies to texts, emails, banner ads, and anything else you may come across.

I recently wrote about scammers’ efforts to target their attacks against us, a crime known as spearphishing. Criminals have more information about us than you think, and are able to use it against us in new ways.

Just delete any emails or texts from senders you don’t recognize.

3. It seems that scammers are always a step ahead of us. They target a wide range of people knowing they only need a few victims to make it worth their while. The article mentions that because of QR codes and URL shorteners, it’s harder than ever to detect suspicious links or websites.

What exactly are the scammers after? Two things: Our money or our personal information (which they’ll then use to steal our money.)

4. I got a text the other day claiming I’d won a $1,000 gift card from Target. All I had to do was respond with some personal information and my “prize” would be on its way.

Now think for a second. Who wins gift cards out of the blue? The scammers know these are tough times and that we’re more vulnerable than usual.

5. One reason you have to be careful clicking unrecognized links is that they could contain malicious code. This code causes your phone to download ring tones or wallpaper without your knowledge or permission, which you’re then billed for by your phone company.

A related crime, carried out by your cell phone company itself, is known is cramming. In cahoots with third-party marketers, they “cram” unauthorized charges onto your bill, hoping you won’t notice. And guess what? Most people don’t. One obvious solution is to go through each page of your bill every month. If you see a strange charge, call your phone company and have it removed.

A more proactive solution is to have your phone company block all third-party charges. That prevents toll fraud or cramming from happening in the first place.

6. The article offer several good suggestions about how to fight back against phone scams. Among them: Complain to the FTC at; forward spam texts to 7726 to alert the phone company; download and use an antivirus program such as Lookout; and ignore texts you don’t recognize.

It may seem that criminals are one step ahead, but you can level the playing field by anticipating their moves and protecting yourself from their attacks.

Take Control of Your Finances: Don’t Let Inertia Rule the Day

We tend to think that history repeats itself. I believe that’s because we have no idea how to predict the future. Or maybe we’re lazy. Whatever the reason, we think that because things have happened one way in the past they will continue that way in the future. Psychologists call this inertia bias.

This assumption of continuity might be convenient, but I’ll show you why it’s poison for your wallet.

Financial success relies on knowing when to change and when to stay the course. For example, how do you know whether to stay with your auto insurance company or switch to a new one? How do you know your cable company isn’t ripping you off? Do you still use that land line or is it there out of habit?

Just because you found a great deal today doesn’t mean it’ll still be a deal a year or 5 years from now. Your goal is to save and be more efficient, so you have to put in some effort. You can’t afford to assume things will always stay the same.

Auto Insurance

I’ll admit – it’s a pain to shop around and get several quotes. The internet hasn’t provided an easy way to compare prices between companies, so we’re forced to call each one separately. Calling to get three quotes could easily take an hour. This is well worth your time though, because yearly premiums can vary by $1,000 or more.

Insurance companies differ in how they assess risk and how much of that risk they’re willing to take on. To one company you might be a moderate-risk driver, but to another you could represent a low risk. In addition, companies often raise and lower their premiums based on which area of the country they’re targeting. If they’re trying to rid themselves of customers from your zip code, you may find your premiums increasing quite a bit.

Those who remain with their auto insurance provider year after year are probably paying more than they should for coverage. The same goes with home and renters insurance, so shop around at least every two years.

Cell Phone Providers

I’ve covered how to save on your cell phone bill several times in the past. Most people remain with the same old provider they’ve always used – most likely one of the Big Four (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-mobile). If you’ve been reading the news recently you know that these behemoths are passing through large price increases whenever they think they can get away with it. They’re doing away with unlimited data, which is ironic because that’s where we’re headed with cell phone usage in America.

What does this mean for your wallet? You’re probably paying 50% more for cell phone service than when you signed up a decade ago. You’re also stuck in one of those nasty two-year contracts, where they lock you in and provide inferior customer service. Instead, switch to one of the low-cost, no-contract providers like Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile or Metro PCS. With Straight Talk for example, you’ll get unlimited across the board for $45 a month, no contract.

Here, remaining in an overpriced contract with one of the Big Four will cost you about $500 a year, or more if you have additional lines. Just because it may have made sense before doesn’t mean it does now. There are better options out there.

Buying a Home

Since the start of the crisis people have moved out of houses based on economic necessity and have moved in with parents or other family members. Some have become renters. Housing prices have tumbled the past five years as a result.

Now it looks like housing prices have finally hit bottom, and interest rates hover around 3.5% for a 30-year loan. That’s the lowest rate on record. If buying a home makes sense in your life, this is the time to act. Prices don’t have anywhere to go but up.

If you’re looking at the gloom of the past five years you might assume prices will continue to drop indefinitely. You may be sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the economy to pick up again. When it does you will have missed your chance.

So Much “Normal”

With inertia bias such a large part of our lives, is it any wonder we have so many words in the English language to describe how things are always done? Typically. Usually. Normally. Generally. Ordinarily. Regularly. Characteristically. Did I miss any?

Like bad habits, inertia is tough to break. But your financial health depends on your ability to know when to change and when to stay the course. Shatter those molds and watch the savings add up!

Can you think of a time when inertia caused you to spend more than you should have?

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Low-Cost Options for Cell Phone Service

Recently I wrote about 5 ways to save on your cell phone bill. One of the strategies I talked about was to consider a lower-priced carrier. Over the past few weeks I learned of two other companies offering no-contract cell service, so I want to elaborate a little on my original post.

Some of the companies I mentioned before include Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile and Metro PCS. Each of these offers no-contract service for both light users and those who need unlimited talk, text and web. The other two competitors I want to mention are Page Plus and Republic Wireless.

Page Plus has been around in its current form since 2000 but only recently started offering an unlimited talk and text plan for about $40 a month. With Page Plus, you can choose a basic voice plan with the option to add a text plan, or you can choose a bundle.

Their cheapest bundle, called “The 12”, offers 250 minutes, 250 texts and 10MB of data for $12 a month. Plans step up from there, ending with the most generous plan, “The 55”. This is equivalent to their $40 unlimited talk and text plan, except you get 1GB of data for an extra $15 a month.  Page Plus uses the Verizon Wireless network.

Started in November 2011, Republic Wireless uses technology that differs from traditional cell phone companies. Realizing that much of our cell phone use occurs when we’re in range of a WiFi signal, they developed a phone that routs calls, texts and data use through wireless internet signals whenever possible. When you’re not in range of WiFi they run on Sprint’s network.

The only phone they offer right now is a very basic Android phone for $199, which includes the first month’s service. Each month thereafter is $19 and no contract is required. If you don’t mind a basic smartphone and spend a lot of your time near WiFi, this could be for you.

When you consider the range of options for low-cost cell phone service, there’s not really a good reason to lock yourself into an expensive contract with one of the Big 4. If your contract is expiring soon, take a look at your cell phone usage. Could one of these players offer a better option?

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Ways to save on your cell phone bill

Just about everyone has a cell phone these days. And over a third now have smartphones. Cell phone plans from the Big 4 (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile) can cost as much as $80-$100 a month for just one line! So what are your options if you’re looking to save on cell phone service?

Consumer Reports lists Five ways you can save on your cell-phone bill as follows:

  1. Don’t automatically buy from the company store
  2. Consider a lower-priced carrier
  3. Use alternative services
  4. Max out on Wi-Fi
  5. Investigate employee discounts

Here are my thoughts:

  1. The only way I’m buying from the company store is if they have the phone I want and it’s free (with contract.) If you’re with one of the Big 4, the company’s website is a great place to start. They often run online-only specials for popular phones that you won’t get ordering by phone or in-store.
  2. The article mentions Consumer Cellular, which I’ve never heard of, as a low-cost alternative. But some of the other no-contract players out there include Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile, Boost, Metro PCS and Cricket. Some of these run on a Big 4-network, and some have their own networks. The advantage of these players is that you don’t have to sign a contract, and you can get a plan for as low as $30 a month. If you need robust national coverage, some of these options may not be for you. Be sure to check out the carrier’s coverage map before making a decision.
  3. Carriers like to charge a massive fee for texting packages, and if you don’t sign up for one you’ll pay a per-text price of 10 to 20 cents. And unlimited data is becoming practically extinct. This means you will have to be more creative in finding ways to avoid added costs and imposed limits. Both Apple and Android have apps that allow you to send unlimited texts for free. And for data, there’s a mobile web browser I like called Opera Mini that can limit the amount of data your phone uses to surf the internet. It uses compression technology behind the scenes but still gives you the same browsing experience.
  4. Using Wi-Fi whenever possible is one of the most important things you can do to keep your monthly bill down. Most smart phones can switch seamlessly from data networks to Wi-Fi when you’re in range of a hotspot previously accessed by your phone. Whenever I’m around the house, my phone is always using Wi-Fi for data, which allows me to keep my usage below the 200MB level every month.
  5. Check your provider’s website to see whether they offer a discount for employees at your company. Some providers offer discounts for college students too, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.