How to defeat your $100/month cell phone plan

This post is long overdue, as cell phone hacking is low hanging fruit in terms of expense optimization. Here’s how I have done it for the past decade, saving us over $10k in the process.

 

Google Voice – The Key Ingredient

Google Voice (https://voice.google.com/) is the critical component of our phone setup. What does Google Voice do?

  • Gives me free personal phone number.
  • If you download the Google Hangouts app, you can make and receive calls to any US number for free when connected to wifi.
  • If you download the Google Voice app, you can text for free when connected to wifi.
  • It provides me a free land line at home when coupled with this device.
    • My wife and I both have our GV accounts linked to the OBI device and have configured it to give distinctive rings for my calls vs my wife’s.
  • When someone calls my Google Voice number, I have configured my Google Voice Account to route to my work, my cell, and my home VOIP box.
    • No matter which device I pick up on, the person calling me has no idea of the underlying “complexity”. They just know that I pick up or not.
  • Google Voice handles my voicemail for me, providing excellent voicemail transcription. I never listen to voice mails any more.

The above is how I make/receive free calls and texts at home/work, where I spend 90% of my waking hours.

 

The below image shows my Google Voice settings. 2 linked phone numbers, one for work and one for my prepaid phone.

 

Prepaid Cell Plan

What about the 10% of my waking hours I’m elsewhere, like biking to/from work or at a kid’s soccer game? I use my prepaid cell phone plan and pay by the minute (I use Tello, which runs on Sprint’s network https://tello.com/rates/pay_as_you_go). You can use this strategy with any prepaid plan if you don’t like Tello.

 

Tello is the best prepaid plan that uses Sprint. If you care to use Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile, then Red Pocket is probably your best bet (link). My frugal brother does this plan and loves it. The only reason why I’m not on this plan is because Tello only costs me about $1/month.

 

Downsides of the Above Configuration

When I make outbound calls from my home VOIP device (or alternatively the Google Hangouts app), I simply dial a number and the outbound caller ID works great.

When I make outbound calls from my work, I initiate the call on the Google Voice webpage. Google calls me first then completes the call. Outbound caller ID works great.

When I make outbound calls from the road, the outbound caller ID shows up as my throw away prepaid number. There are probably ways around this but I frankly don’t care enough to implement them. I simply tell my friends/family the following. Enter into your phone two contacts for me:
* FrugalProfessor=GoogleVoiceNumber
* FrugalProfessorPleaseDon’tEverCallOrTextMeAtThisNumber=PrepaidSimNumber

 

What about Data?

If you are like me, you spend 90% of your waking hours with free Wifi. So data is pointless here.

If you use your phone for navigation, like I do, you can download and use the offline version of google maps. I have my entire state downloaded. When I travel for work, I download a map of the city I’m going to, usually at the airport.

Podcasts download automatically for me overnight at home, yet I listen to them on the road.

However, if I’m in a pinch I’ll pay $0.02/MB for data. I simply turn data on, do my business, then turn it off. Simple as that. For reference, calling an Uber takes about 2-3 MB.

 

Wrapping it up

Without committing to anything, you can sign up for Google Voice, get a free number, download the free apps, link your cell phone, and maybe even try the VOIP box. If you try it out and like it, port your cell number to GV and call it a day. It may take you an hour to get used to the above configuration.

The upside is that you can pay less than $10/year for a perfectly functioning phone system. The downsides are…..uh….you won’t be able to stream Netflix while driving (well you actually could if you simply planned ahead and downloaded them ahead of time for offline use)?

 

A Reader Takes the Plunge

Blog reader Joey at MoneyandMegabytes followed the above advice and took the plunge. Read about his experience here (link).

 

31 thoughts on “How to defeat your $100/month cell phone plan”

  1. It’s not a “frugal”, but since I often need cellular data for work, we’ve used an MVNO named Ting to great success. They used tiered pricing (separately for minutes, data, and texts) rather than pay per minute, but zero usage costs $0, the first tier is only $3, and the other tiers are very reasonable. You do have to pay $6/month/line, but it is much easier to scale up or down depending on your needs each month. It’s easy to “bring your own device”, which is what we have often done by separately purchasing used smartphones for very cheap.

    Additionally, Ting provides CDMA service via Sprint’s network (with voice/text roaming on Verizon!) OR GSM service via T-Mobile’s network. It is easy to switch between the two if needed (just need to switch SIM cards). (Not sure what will happen if Sprint and T-Mobile merge, but I’m guessing not much will change.) To me, voice roaming on Verizon is a very useful feature because it more-or-less ensures that I can get voice service in most places.

    Overall there is a lot of flexibility, and we have been able to keep the bill quite low each month (but obviously not $1/month low).

    Reply
    • Scott,

      Thanks for chiming in with the helpful comment! I’ll update the post to reference your comment.

      Certainly what I’m proposing is the bare bones plan, which for my situation is more than adequate. In your situation with the need for mobile for work, you’re killing it with Ting.

      I think both of us agree that it’s irrational to pay full price for service from the big carriers when the MVNO carriers provide the same service at a fraction of the cost. I know a lot of bloggers like Republic Wireless, Google FI, etc.

      Reply
  2. Like Scott above I use Ting for voice calling, but instead of being happy with that I got a dual SIM phone and use the free 700MB/month data on FreedomPop as well. I just checked and my wife and I have an average monthly bill of $25.42 (total with taxes; 2 lines) for the past 12 months. It’s going to go up a little now now because I need more calling, but still incredible as far as I’m concerned. And I like that I don’t have to worry about whether I have enough minutes or texts or data.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the input Karol. It’s great to hear what other people are doing.

      I used FreedomPop in years past as well, and I liked them pretty well. I just googled to see if my Moto G4 could handle dual sims and unfortunately it can’t. I like your innovativeness though. Before going with Tello I strongly considered going back to FreedomPop. Perhaps I should reconsider….

      The one thing we do to avoid running out of data/minutes is auto recharge once we get below $10 in balance. That way if our car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and we spend an hour on the phone with a tow company, we can be assured that we’ll have continued service as it auto reloads.

      Reply
  3. I’ve looked at Ting in the past, but unfortunately I live in the hinterlands of Appalachia and am lucky most days to have one bar of service if I’m more than a half mile from an inter-state. I look forward to the future when even the country folks like me have the advantages of technology. (ok, it’s not that bad, but still, it could be better).

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear that Ting won’t work for you. With that said, my strategy can work with any prepaid provider. If Verizon is the best in your area, I suspect you can find a prepaid provider that works on its network.

      Reply
      • I’m not sure what you’re after.

        I used VOIP for 4 years in grad school with the OBI box linked above and 2MBPS(down)/1MBPS(up). It’s only recently that I’ve upgraded to faster internet. Add in a good router (I have a google) and living in the boonies doesn’t affect the VOIP aspect.

        As far as which cell provider to go with, choose the cheapest that has decent service coverage. Verizon is generally the best, though I’ve found RedPocket (runs on Verizon) to be more expensive than Tello (runs on Sprint).

        There are few parts of the country where this system would work. For it to not work, you’d need: no DSL/basic broadband internet access + no cell phone coverage. If both of those conditions are met, I’m unsure how I’d be able to help you.

        Reply
        • something cheaper than the ~$80/month I send Verizon that still works in the sticks. When my phone breaks I’d like to get a cheap dumb one combined with some sort of portable device to listen to podcasts in the car and walk to my office. I think apple re-released the ipod which might work for that and I always wanted one of those razr phones back when all the cool kids had them

          It’s all just slightly confusing; I get the same vibe when I randomly start unpacking travel hacking with credit cards and usually give up figuring my 2% card and random 5% one plus 6% grocery one gets the job done good enough.

          Reply
  4. Professor,
    I realize this article was written a while ago, but I have a couple questions for you:

    1. Do you receive calls and/or text messages when not connected to WiFi? If so, do you have your settings set up so that messages and calls are forwarded to your linked number? I imagine that if calls are forwarded you can choose whether or not to answer the call, but if messages are forwarded you would just be charged for all text messages? I’m not sure I understand how this part works.

    2. Is there a reason not to use the Hangouts app for free texting?

    Thank you for the great article!
    Joey

    Reply
    • Sorry that the article is a bit confusing. When I’m connected to Wifi and receive a call, I get two simultaneous calls to my cell phone: 1.) one to google hangouts via wifi and 2.) one directly to phone via prepaid plan via native phone app.

      When I’m disconnected from wifi, I only get incoming calls through method #2. The great thing about this system is that it is invisible to the people calling me. It is no added complexity to them.

      Regarding texts, I’ve chosen to only receive texts via the Google Voice app (This is a setting within google voice: I don’t forward texts to my prepaid number). Why? I am charged 2 cents/text for texts received on my prepaid plan.

      Can people get a hold of me by calling me when I’m on the road? Yes; seamlessly. Can they get a hold of me by texting me when I’m on the road? Not until I hit a wifi hotspot. What my friends/family know with me is to call me if it’s important.

      Regarding google hangouts app, they have the “chat” feature and the “calling” feature, but I do my texting through the “google voice” app. It is indeed a bit odd that there are two apps which do different things, but this is what I’ve done. The hangouts dialer app is green in the android app store and the google voice app is blue in the app store.

      Hope that helps. Been doing this for over a decade now. I can’t fathom why people pay full price for phone plans when they spend 99% of their hours in wifi hotspots.

      Reply
      • Awesome, thanks for this answer. Makes a lot of sense now. I just download both hangouts dialer and google voice to start testing things out, and my hangouts app has the option to send SMS messages. Maybe this is a new feature?

        I anticipate this will definitely be the way to go for me as well. I’ve been looking into Republic Wireless and Google Fi, but I think my costs would be much lower by simply paying per text/minute when it’s so easy to take advantage of Wifi!

        Reply
        • Maybe it is indeed a new feature with hangouts dialer. The really nice thing about my proposal is that you can try everything out in a non-committal way. Only after you’re pleased with the setup would you commit to GV by porting your primary number to it and paying the $10 or so one-time fee. It’s a solid setup. I hope it works for you.

          Reply
  5. Would google voice work if you live in the middle of nowhere and have DSL wifi speeds roughly download at ~1.3 Mbps and upload at ~.3 ?! I’m always curious about ways to drop Verizon for something like this or republic wireless but am not sure if our signal strength/etc. at home would make it a poor experience…

    Reply
    • JD,

      The great thing about what I’m proposing is that you can try it out without paying a penny:
      1.) Sign up for GV and get a free number
      2.) Install the Google Hangouts app
      3.) Make a call

      For the past 5 years (prior to last month), I’ve had 2mbps(down)/1mpbs(up) internet. This was more than sufficient to make calls with, particularly if there was no other traffic on other devices.

      The 0.3 up with your current DSL may indeed be a constraint, but you won’t know until you try.

      As a final suggestion, I’d ensure that it’s not the router’s fault. If you are losing speed due to poor router location (or old wireless router technology), then upgrade your router for a one-time fee. We’ve used a Google OnHub routers for years and are huge fans. If the wifi signal is a problem, then buy the OBI device which doesn’t rely on Wifi (it’s hard wired to your router via ethernet cable).

      Reply
      • I’ve sat on an email reminder in my inbox for almost year about this…every time I look into my Verizon bill it breaks my heart and sometimes is scary because I am close to replacing my almost 5 year old phone (just need it to survive another week or so)

        I am thinking I may need a new phone to use google voice though; my phone is a Nookia Lumia 928 with Windows mobile; I am guessing google hangouts app never ran on it and if it did, I would bet it’s no longer available since I think windows shut everything mobile down a year or so ago..

        I am guessing the router is partially to blame.. I’m pretty sure one of the antennas on it is ~75% broken. I also wonder how other service providers work as I live in the middle of nowhere VA about 25 minutes to the closest wal mart

        Reply
        • The prescription is the following:

          Get a cheap unlocked prepaid phone. Any newish moto g will work. I think they all run on both Verizon and Sprint’s network now (though you’d want to check).

          Pay no more than $200 in cash for new phone. Amazon/Slickdeals are good sources.

          Get a new router. Google’s Asus Onhub router is what we have. It’s slightly more powerful than the new white version google puts out. Pay around $60 for that.

          Now pay $1 (tello) to $5 (redpocket) per month for prepaid usage.

          Harvest up to $1k/year in cell phone savings per phone.

          Reply
  6. I have been doing exactly the same thing for a few years now with GV and Tello.
    Since we need a phone service to call international( family), we use ultramobile(www.ultramobile.com) a T-Mobile MVNO. It costs $20 a month for unlimited calls and text within US and 75 international destinations. You also 500MB of 4G LTE data.

    Reply
  7. I’ve just signed up per your directions, following your plan with GV and Tello exactly. Moving away from a $35 Total Wireless pay as you go plan. Let’s see how much I spend each month!
    If it works out, there are 5 more family members waiting in the wings.

    Reply
  8. I recently switched to MVNO named “Mint Mobile”. Uses T-mobile network but you pay for a year. I only pay $15 per month ($180 for year) and get 3Gb data every month and unlimited talk and text. They also have top tier plans for 8Gb and 12 Gb and also let you try out for 7 days or 3 months for minimal cost. They also offer $1 credit every month for international calling. It turns out pretty good deal for me with $0.01 per minute to the country I am calling.

    Here is the link.

    https://www.mintmobile.com/?utm_campaign=Refer-a-friend%20Landing%20Page&utm_content=personal_url&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=Friendbuy&fbuy_ref_code=l-Km3

    May be someone will find it useful.

    Reply
  9. Is it still possible to go as low as $1/mo with Tello pay as you go? Their site says: “If no order was placed in a period of 3 months, Pay As You Go credit will expire and the Tello service will be disconnected. This policy is in effect since September 10, 2019.” As far as I can tell the lowest amount you can get for pay as you go credit is $20. So that would be a minimum of ~$7/mo, no?

    Reply
    • Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I had no idea that Tello had changed their policy.

      My minimum top-off amount with Tello has been $10. I have it auto configured to re-top off every time I drop below $1. So far, I haven’t noticed any unusual behavior from my account. I generally top off once ever 8 months or so.

      If Tello indeed is problematic going forward, I’ll switch to Red Pocket. They have been great for Mrs FP.

      Reply

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