In looking for ways to save money, I thought I'd start with a necessary evil: my cell phone. For years I've had a love-hate relationship with post-paid carriers AT&T and Verizon, and always thought I was spending too much for my smartphone and service. Recently, a few of my friends made the switch to prepaid wireless, so I decided to explore whether it was right for me.
Knowing close to nothing about prepaid wireless (except for the names of a couple of brands like TracFone, Boost Mobile and Straight Talk), I started my research by finding out who the wireless prepaid providers are. I found a helpful list of the top eight providers and their prepaid services.
Verizon Wireless:offers Inpulse prepaid service
AT&T:offers GoPhone prepaid wireless
Sprint:offers Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile prepaid wireless
T-Mobile:offers T-Mobile To Go prepaid
TracFone Wireless:offers prepaid wireless under the NET10, Simple Mobile, Straight Talk, and TracFone brands
MetroPCS:offers prepaid, no-contract phones and plans under its own brand
Cricket Wireless:offers Jump Mobile prepaid service
U.S. Cellular:offers TalkTracker prepaid wireless
I also found out that while all of these companies provide prepaid brands and service, many people consider TracFone (which includes NET10 and Straight Talk) and Sprint (Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile) as prepaid mobile specialists.
Now that I knew the players, I needed to compare some pros and cons of switching to prepaid wireless; so I created this handy list:
PROS: save money (sometimes a lot), control spending, no contracts or early termination fees, flexibility to switch providers and plans
CONS: pay more for an actual phone, may pay more for calls and texts, costly or limited international calling, possibility of no roaming capabilities
In talking to friends and family, I learned a couple of other things that I didn't consider. Prepaid is great for younger users (like my 16-year-old cousin) who haven't yet established credit and whose parents don't want to pay a lot for a phone and plan. Prepaid cell phones are also ideal for people who don't have credit cards, phone numbers or permanent addresses.
So if you don't have a contract, how do you keep your prepaid cell phone service active? You can pay as you go (usually on a month-to-month basis) with a credit or debit card, directly from your bank account, or by buying a prepaid airtime card online or from a retailer like Walmart or Target -- sometimes local convenience stores carry prepaid cards, too.
Armed with the basics of how prepaid works and reasons to consider a switch, I now need to figure out how much I use my phone, whether a contract or non-contract option would be less expensive in the long run, and which provider has the best coverage and service where I live. While I haven't made a final decision, I'm leaning toward Straight Talk because I can bring my current phone and keep my number.
Here's what I suggest to help you find out which prepaid wireless provider (and phone) are right for you. Because prices and deals change frequently (especially around major holidays) and your cell phone needs (and geographic location) may be very different from mine, the first thing I recommend is checking out each prepaid provider's website. There, you can see current special offers available in your area that include the type of phone and coverage you need. The next step is to do a comparison search of the carriers, their plans, and associated costs. Check out the two links below, which I found very helpful.