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Comparing cell phone plans makes going to the dentist look fun. To help, here are our ratings and comparisons of the best cell phone plans in 2017.

best cell phone plans in 2017

These days, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a cell phone. They’ve become a staple in our lives. And, for many without a landline, they’re a necessity. But just because we have to have our cell phones, doesn’t mean that we have to pay an arm and a leg for service.

Figuring out how much a new cell phone plan will actually cost you practically requires an accounting degree. Those “$45 unlimited calls, messaging, and data” plans can quickly, somehow, turn into $100-per-line charges. Between fees and fine print, it can all be hard to decipher.

Let’s take a look at how much cell plans have changed recently, all across the board. We will cover the four major cell phone carriers (Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T). And we’ll see what prices they are actually offering.

We’ll exclude any promotional pricing, since promotions change so often. We’ll also cover the amount and quality of data included in each plan, as that’s the most common concern for subscribers these days.

So, let’s get started. Then, you can determine how much a new plan will really cost you, long before some surprise, inflated bill lands in your inbox.

Big Changes

A few notable shifts that have occurred in the cell phone world as of late. But for the most part, these shifts are in the best interests of the consumer.

Return of Unlimited Plans

You may remember that unlimited plans used to be pretty popular. Different carriers offered different services. Some only offered unlimited talk time, and others offered unlimited talk and text. But you could find some kind of unlimited plan from nearly every provider.

Well, a few years ago, carriers began to unexpectedly pull these types of plans from their lineup. The reason? The massive wave of smartphone users and their unprecedented data usage. This was an even bigger issue once streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify gained popularity.

These apps eat up a significant amount of data. To compensate, carriers began to offer expensive data plans alongside their typical “minutes and messages” offerings. Some even forced consumers to pay a fee for simply having a smartphone connected to a line. It didn’t matter if you used 1GB of data per cycle or hit your limit… the fee was the same.

Personally, these “smartphone surcharges” and data fees caused my own bill to jump from an average of $60 per month per line to just over $90 per month per line. We’re talking about another $360 a year per phone, for the luxury of checking my email or Facebook on the go.

You can understand, then, why I jumped for joy when I heard that unlimited plans were making a comeback. I stayed with my same carrier and switched to one such unlimited plan the same day it debuted. This immediately cut my bill by about 35% without any noticeable decrease in service.

All four of the major carriers now offer some form of unlimited plan. Just as before, the plans vary in what’s actually offered. Take a look at your own bill history before switching to see how much data you typically use. Considering that most of the carriers have different unlimited package levels, you may be able to save some money with a smaller plan.

Of course, keep in mind that “unlimited” doesn’t actually mean unlimited without consequences. If you’re a high-speed data hog, you’ll probably have your speeds tethered (or reduced) after you hit a certain usage limit.

No Contracts

Gone are the days of being locked into two-year agreements with a carrier. And consumers no longer have to pay pricey early termination charges if/when they want to switch. Now, all four of the big carriers operate on a no-contract basis.

This is great news as far as flexibility. You’re welcome to change plans and carriers anytime you like, without consequences. However, there is a downside.

One of the biggest perks of contract plans, at least for smartphone users, was the discounted phone price. In exchange for signing one of those one-, two-, or even three-year contracts, the carriers offered a substantial discount on the actual phone. For those who lined up to snag the newest iDevice, this discount of several hundred dollars was well worth the contract’s shackles.

Now, you’ll need to buy your phone outright when you pick that new, no-contract plan… no more $199 iPhones. However, the carriers typically offer their own version of a zero-interest loan, allowing you to buy the phone for a down payment and an agreement of an increased monthly charge.

Once the phone is paid in full–usually around 24 months–that added charge falls off. If you want to switch carriers before you finish paying off the phone, you’ll simply need to fork over the balance in order to release yourself.

Now, let’s look at what each cell company is offering in terms of plans.

Sprint

Sprint has bounced up and down a bit on its unlimited plan pricing over the past year or so. It was one of the first carriers to offer new unlimited plans. Then it dropped its prices significantly earlier this year.

Sprint has raised its prices back up a bit since then. But they’re still nicely discounted from what they were last year and before. However, it’s important to note that the prices shown here are expected to revert back to their higher rates after October 2018. So, be sure to make the switch before then if Sprint is the best choice for you.

Data Quality & Quantity

With Sprint, you’ll have no problem streaming HD-quality videos with your standard unlimited data plan. You’ll also be able to take advantage of 10GB of high-speed mobile hot spot usage per line. This means you can use your cell phone service as a wifi hub for your laptop or other devices, which is a convenient feature to have available at no extra charge. Once you use up your monthly 10GB, your hot spot speed will drop to 2G.

If you use more than 23GB of high-speed data per month, Sprint may tether your speeds. Also, if you are using your data for gaming and music, your streaming speeds will be capped at 8Mbps and 1.5Mbps respectively.

Pricing

Remember rates will jump up a bit, to previous price levels, at the end of October 2018. Until then, though, Sprint has some of the most competitive rates available on unlimited plans.

For one phone line, an unlimited plan will run you $55. A second phone adds another $45, with additional phones after that costing $10 per line.

If you’re not interested in unlimited data–maybe you have a younger child who doesn’t need a smartphone–the only other option available is a $45 per month per line plan. This plan does include up to 2GB of data.

 

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
1GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
2GB data $45 $90 $135 $180 $225
Unlimited data $55

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $65)

$100

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $110)

$110

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $145)

$120

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $180)

$125

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $215)

T-Mobile

Up until recently, T-Mobile offered family data-sharing options for its customers, called Simple Choice plans. These meant that you could purchase bulk shared data, along with unlimited messaging and calls, for the whole family to use. You could even allocate data to individual phone lines. That way your teenager couldn’t hog all the data midway through the month’s plan.

These Simple Choice plans were also great in that they didn’t include data usage from streaming services, like Netflix and Spotify, against your data allowances. Considering how much data those apps can use, this was a big bonus for many customers.

However, this is no longer the case. Now, T-Mobile has replaced Simple Choice plans with its T-Mobile One plan. Now you have to purchase a separate data plan for every phone on the account.

The good news is that these plans are all unlimited–data, voice calls, and text messages. Depending on how much data your family was eating through before, this could either increase or decrease your monthly bill.

Data Quality & Quantity

Basic T-Mobile plans offer customers “DVD-quality” video streaming. But it caps hotspot speeds at 3G. If you want better quality or higher speed, you’ll need to pay another $10 per month, per line. This upgrade will then snag you a 4G mobile hotspot and HD-quality video streaming.

Whether or not that’s worth the added cost, only you can decide.

As with Sprint (and all of the others, in fact), “unlimited” has its caveats. However, the cap for potential speed tethering is a bit higher with T-Mobile, at a solid 32GB. Surpass that in a given billing cycle, and T-Mobile may slow down your phone’s speed when the system is overloaded.

Pricing

One great thing about T-Mobile’s pricing structure is that it’s incredibly simple to calculate. You don’t have to worry about regulatory fees, taxes, or little monthly charges that can cause your bill to notch further and further up.

What you see is what you get. Their pricing already includes all taxes and fees, so when they say you’ll pay $75 a month, they mean that’s what you’ll actually pay. So, keep that in mind when you’re comparison shopping.

Their price structure is as easy as it gets. There is only one option: unlimited everything. The first line is $75 a month (remember, this is what your actual bill will be… no fees or taxes). Each line after that is another $35. Easy peasy.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
1GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
2GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
Unlimited data $75 $110 $145 $180 $215

Verizon

Unable to stick with one pricing structure, Verizon has had a lot of back-and-forth with their plans in the last year or so. What they’ve settled on now has a lot of people irked.

Their prices have dropped, and you now have a choice between two unlimited data plans. However, you’ll be getting a little less bang for your buck in the end.

Data Quality & Quantity

Verizon’s plans used to be, like many other carriers, of the limited variety. You could choose until very recently to purchase a set amount of data for a set price. Now, your options are between two unlimited plans, which offer varying qualities of data.

The first plan is called Go Unlimited, and it is the less expensive of the two. You will still receive unlimited data, but Verizon reserves the right to tether you speeds any time the network is busy. This is in stark contrast to most tethering rules, where the carrier will only begin to tether your peak time speeds after you’ve used a certain amount of data.

With this plan, you’ll also get DVD-quality video streaming along with a mobile hotspot, capped at a 600 Kbps speed.

If you need more, well, everything, there is also the Beyond Unlimited plan. It’s an extra $10 a month but offers better quality data and more flexible rules.

With this higher-priced option, you’ll get HD-quality streaming on your videos and a 4G LTE mobile hotspot with up to 15GB per month, per line. You’ll also avoid being tethered during peak network times until you’ve used more than 22GB of data in that billing cycle.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
Go Unlimited $80 $140 $165 $180 $225
Beyond Unlimited $90 $170 $195 $220 $275

AT&T

Last but not least, we have AT&T. The carrier started offering unlimited plans again in February 2017, and, like Verizon, it offers two different qualities to choose from.

The company does still offer Mobile Share Advantage (finite data) plans, if that suits your needs better. Grandma probably doesn’t need unlimited data, so these plans are still the cheaper option for low-data users.

Data Quality & Quantity

If you opt for the cheaper of the two unlimited plans through AT&T, the Unlimited Choice, you might be a little disappointed in the quality. It really depends on what you’re used to getting.

Unlimited Choice will give you standard-definition quality (don’t ask me how big of a difference there is between this and “DVD-quality,” though) video streaming with a speed cap of 1.5Mbps. For non-streaming data usage AT&T caps speeds at 3Mbps. The Unlimited Choice plan also does not include a mobile hotspot.

If you need better quality and faster speeds, you can opt for the pricier version, the Unlimited Plus plan. This includes a mobile hotspot with 10GB of usage per line. Go over that limit, and you can still use your hot spot; it just gets limited to a speed of 128Kbps.

This plan includes HBO at no additional cost (which may be a great plus if you’re trying to cut the cord or just decrease that cable bill!) and HD-quality video streaming.

Pricing

The difference in price between the two unlimited plans is larger than with other carriers (most of whom offer an upgrade to the “better” plan for only ~$10 a month per line).

Unlimited Choice plans start at $65 for the first line. The second line is another $60, and each line after that, up to 10 lines, is another $20 per line.

Unlimited Plus plans start at $95 for the first line. The second line is again $60, with each subsequent line adding another $20 per line.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
Unlimited Choice $65 $125 $145 $165 $185
Unlimited Plus $95 $155 $175 $195 $215

As cell users’ needs and data demands change, carriers are likely to further alter their unlimited plans. So be on the lookout for changes to these prices and the perks that each plan offers.

Also, keep in mind that cell phone carriers offer promotional pricing and discounts frequently. A number of these carriers offer discounts for autopay and paperless billing, so your bill might actually be less than what you’re seeing here. You should check online and even call the carrier to ask about potential discounts before signing up to ensure that you get the lowest possible price.

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It’s common knowledge that kids today aren’t learning the same things that we learned when we were younger. Take cursive, for instance. Forty-six states have implemented Common Core Standards on at least some level, which eliminates mandatory teaching of cursive in the elementary school curriculum. While children are instead learning how to type and use iPads — a needed skill in today’s technology-based word — it’s resulting in a generation of kids who cannot write their signature or read the Bill of Rights.

And, as many would probably assume, teens are also not getting a decent financial education in school. As a result, we have seen an influx of young adults who are uneducated about basic personal finance and how to properly manage their money.

fin literacy2

The JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy spent over a decade measuring financial literacy, with one aspect being the literacy among high school students. What they found was discouraging.

The survey asked students a number of questions on personal finance — covering topics such as retirement, credit cards, savings, and insurance — and the majority of kids failed each year. The first year surveyed, 1997, the students scored an average of 57.3%. A few years later, in 2002, this dropped to a 50.2% score. Then, in 2008, this dropped even further to a shocking score of 48.3% correct.

Mind you, these are basic financial literacy questions, and these children are obviously not getting the education they need. They are going into college and their first careers without really knowing how to manage their finances, save their money, or invest. Many of them have no clue how to file their taxes, either. This could end up being a frustrating, and even costly, shortfall.

Banking Deal: Earn 1.30% APY on an FDIC-insured savings account at Synchrony Bank.

Not surprisingly, the kids realize that they’re lacking. USA Today also reported that most students would even grade themselves as failing at their financial education. A more recent survey by U.S. Bank found that 65% of high school students across all 50 states and the District of Columbia ranked their financial knowledge as insufficient. Testing of these children’s states found that they were right, with more than half of them scoring a grade of C or less on the basic test given. In fact, 29% of them got a D or F.

So, these findings beg the question: Is a class on money management appropriate as a requirement? After all, this is a skill necessary to function properly in life. As one becomes an adult, with adult responsibilities, one must know how to correctly balance a bank account and understand credit card and loan terms.

But does personal finance fit alongside history, literature, foreign language, sciences and mathematics, art, and music — the “staples” of all public high school curricula throughout the United States? [click to continue…]

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Over the course of thousands of years, the character of money has gone through various metamorphoses. Bartering was the chief method members of a society acquired their individual needs until they developed shortcuts. Since that first shortcut, societies haven’t stopped creating more shortcuts, further separating the method of acquiring something from those things that are acquired.

Money is just a temporary replacement for things, with a value that everyone accepts as a standard. If you have meat that I need, but you don’t need the clothing I create, I can give you money rather than clothing. You can then take that money to someone else and offer it in exchange for something you need, like knives to cut the meat you offer to your customers. Here, money is only a tool for getting the materials you need.

This money is the first level of abstraction — a representation, just like a word is a representation of an idea. Abstraction layers are helpful because they allow replacements to be used with the same monetary value of items that aren’t available. That is, you use coins to buy the meat because you don’t make the knives the butcher needs.

The next abstraction layer is credit. You don’t need cash on hand when you can pay with credit cards. Technology has led us to what must be the final abstraction level conceivable; a world where our “money” exists only as bits of data, zeroes and ones, in a bank’s master computer database. If we need cash, we can exchange some of those bits, lowering our balance in the database, and receive cash out of a machine, but that’s less and less necessary when we can pay for more things electronically. Debit cards, ACH transfers, and Federal Reserve wires don’t necessarily involve any cash, just a rearrangement of data in computers.

This technology makes it much easier to keep our hands off our own money. This should be one of the best things that can happen for the state of our own personal finances. Pay checks are delivered right into our bank accounts. Employers don’t send cash to their employees’ banks, they transfer “electronic funds.” The banks receive instructions electronically and increase the balance in your checking accounts overnight.

If you have created automatic savings or investments, the bank will make these transfers without any human intervention. Those consumers who take advantage of all that technology has to offer have likely put as much as possible on auto-pilot, including paying bills electronically and perhaps receiving automated shipments of underwear every three months.

Therein lies a problem. Automation is an abstraction layer that separates you from your money. While much of the automation we’ve discussed on Consumerism Commentary is designed to take good habits, amplify them, and make them occur without thought and without the interference of human error, if you take this concept too far you cede control of your finances.

Going back to the original bartering system, the things we make have intrinsic value. As you increase abstraction by using money that represents those things, the credit that represents that money, the digital bits that represent both credit and money, and the automation that keeps your brain away from the decision-making process, the real value becomes further hidden.

Here’s the result: it’s easier to spend more than you need to the further you get away from intrinsic value. We know this because despite best intentions, overall people spend more with credit cards (a higher abstraction layer) than they would with cash (a lower abstraction layer).

While it’s a good idea for the basics to remain automated, return your brain to your money and get involved with spending decisions. I have a good personal example to share. A few years ago, I set up automatic payments to take care of my electricity and gas bill from PSE&G. I’m busy, so I don’t like to be bothered with writing checks and sending them through the mail. But that’s the same excuse I have for hardly looking at the detailed electricity bill.

I used to be familiar with my energy usage trends as well as the fluctuations of energy prices, but no longer. I look at my checking account balance online every few days, so I notice when the bank makes the bill payment for me, but I have not looked at monthly trends to determine what I could do to cut costs. As a result, I’m likely spending much more than I need to.

It takes time and effort, but it will be worthwhile to become involved with your own money once again. If you made your automation decisions many years ago like I have, you might now be in a different situation requiring different decisions. If you’re not intimately involved with your money, you’re likely not making enough decisions, and as a result, your future may not be as financially secure as it could be.

Photo: jquiz, michaeldbeavers

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I can’t completely fault companies like Amway, Mary Kay, and Lia Sophia. They know that friendship results in two important qualities: trust and guilt. These two qualities are important to companies because they make the process of selling products much easier. I find it relatively easy to politely decline — and hang up on if necessary — a salesperson who calls me uninvited in order to get me to upgrade my phone service or subscribe to a theater. Although I usually don’t have a problem, it can be more difficult to say no to a friend.

Banking Deal: Earn 1.30% APY on an FDIC-insured savings account at Synchrony Bank.

In most cases, people join these multi-level marketing (MLM) programs not because they believe in the product but because there is a system designed to allow them to earn significant amounts of money if they play the game right. If you are an influencer in your social circle, you will be able to convince your friends to sell products and host their own parties increasing your income. “Party” is just a code word for “sales pitch.” You can’t achieve success as a multi-level marketer without burning some relationships.

MLM isn’t the only issue. Everyone knows someone who is a social seller. From my observations, the products involved are almost always low quality, too expensive, or both. For example, someone in my office was trying to sell Girl Scout cookies to co-workers the other day for $4 a box. When asked, she had to explain that $4 was the real price and she was not artificially marking the price up. That’s a difficult sell when another co-worker was offering boxes of Girl Scout cookies for $3.50 a piece a few months ago.

I like these cookies, so I usually buy a box each year. Although I’m driven partly by my enjoyment, I’m also driven by guilt. One box of Girl Scout cookies is as far as I’ll go, however.

Dealing with co-workers trying to sell you products you don’t want is easier that dealing with friends who try the same tactics. When a friend is the seller, pressuring you to come to a party (a code word for sales pitch), you have to be strong.

  • First, you can consider going to the party. Don’t bring any money and don’t bring your credit cards. If you see something you truly like and is a good deal, it will be available from your friend later.
  • Politely decline. If you buy from your friend and there is a problem with the product, your friendship could be ruined. If the seller is a co-worker, you could be making your work environment uncomfortable. There are many stories about friends disappearing or not answering calls once they take their money, and the sale could go bad no matter how close you are with your friend.
  • If sales pressure continues, make it clear you are not interested. Sometimes you have to say more than, “No.” Just explain that you’re not interested in the products and you’d prefer to keep the relationship away from business.

Unfortunately, just by denying a friend, you might lose your connection. That may be the fear that prevents people from saying no more often. Saying no is fine, because a good friend won’t use you for their own financial benefit, and a good friend won’t pressure you into something in which you’re not interested.

How do you deal with friends who want to sell you products?

Photo: Pictures from Heather

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