jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Smartphone Cost and Value

iPhones are expensive. Well, not just iPhones, all smart phones, Android, Windows, what have you. These little gadgets that we can walk out of a Verizon store with without paying a penny now wind up costing thousands later, once you consider the total cost of ownership. This is especially true if you are paying for an entire family, possibly one with two teenage daughters with phones of their own.

Our families phones are getting a bit long in the tooth, so I dropped by US Cellular to price out new ones and see what kind of deal I could get. Sometime in the past two years the phone companies have decided that the two year contract and reduced price for new phones is no good, and that the proper way to sell phones is with a twenty-month, no interest rate loan on the full price of the phone. Here’s how it breaks down.

The Cost

Assuming my wife and I purchased two middle of the road, 64GB iPhone 6’s, and bought two iPhone 5s’s for the kids under the new program, we’d be looking at $32.45 per month for mine, times two for my wife’s, which puts us at $64.90 per month. The girls’ phones are a little cheaper, coming in at $24.95 per month each, so $49.90 per month.

There’s a $60 fee for the 6GB per month data plan, shared between all the phones, and each phone would have a $20 per month “connection charge”. All together, that comes out to $254.80 per month. That number is still a little misleading though, because at this point we would have signed up for a 20 month loan.

At $254.80 per month for 20 months, the real two year price tag on the phones for our family is $5656.00. As desirable as these phones are, that’s a number that should give you pause while browsing through the store. If we kept that cycle up for ten years, the rough back of the napkin calculations put the cost at around $28,280.00.

It’s comforting to think that the price of the phone is worth it; you start thinking about the phone as a utility like gas or electric. A modern necessity you can’t get away from. That’s not true, it’s a lie you tell yourself to make the money you spend on these superfluous, magnificent devices palatable. We love our phones, but we are in uncharted territory now, not only are we spending thousands of dollars on them, we don’t fully understand how they are affecting our society, or ourselves.

But let’s put that concept to the side for the moment, and just concentrate on cost. Let’s say instead of the phones we bought a new iPad for each of us every year. At $300 per iPad Mini for the kids, and $600 per iPad Air 2 for my wife and I, we could buy a new iPad every year for each of us for $1800 per year, compared to $2828 per year for the phones. Of course, that’s not apples to apples, since you don’t buy a new iPhone every year, so the total annual cost for the iPads, replacing them every two years would be $900.

Of course, just having an iOS device doesn’t replace having a cell phone. Flip phones come cheap. You can get one at Verizon for $2.08 per month, and pay $5 per month for 700 minutes of talk time and unlimited texts. This plan still requires a $20 per phone access charge, so for our family the total month cost for flip phones would be $93.32 per month. Multiply that out for two years and it comes out to $2239.68. Ten years comes to $11,198.40.

So, we could, if we so choose, buy a new iPad every year, alternating between iPad Mini and a full sized iPad, and save around $400 every two years. Or, we could skip the iPads and just save $1400 every two years by trading our smart phones for dumb phones. The big question is if that’s worth it or not.

The Benefit

I use my iPhone every day, several times per day. It goes running with me first thing in the morning. I read the news with Unread at breakfast. I listen to Overcast on the drive to and from work. If my kids have a sporting event somewhere out of town, I use Apple Maps to get us there on time.1. I chat with my friends and family throughout the day with Messages, and occasionally dip into Twitteriffic to catch up with the world. Occasionally I’ll open up Instapaper at lunch and dive into a saved article.

I keep my world organized with OmniFocus, and make sure I’ve got all the important numbers2 I need with me at all times with 1Password. All of that could go away and I’d still be fine. What would bother me about going back to life without a smart phone would be the more personal interactions that I’d miss, or that simply wouldn’t happen.

My wife and I were on a date last night and I took a picture of her laughing that’s now my lock screen, and we took a couple of funny selfies to go along with it. Today my daughter sent me a beautiful, and long, text message that must have taken her some time to type up. Would I have either of these things if I didn’t have my smart phone, or if the rest of my family didn’t have theirs? Maybe. Maybe not.

My iPhone is my health coach, my newspaper, my camcorder, my camera, my music player, my talk radio3, my address book, my wallet, my journal, my temporary distraction, my reminder that right now, this instant, I’m living in a future I couldn’t have imagined when I was a teenager. Giving my family iPhones has meant that I’m there for my kids when they have a question, no matter where I actually am. It’s meant that we can trust them to go farther and stay later, knowing that checking up on them is just a tap away. It’s meant that we can stay on top of the things that are most important to us, and that we can stay connected, even when we are far apart.

It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

  1. I very, very rarely see a problem with Apple Maps, and when I do it’s minor enough that I don’t think much of it. 

  2. Passcodes, door codes, insurance numbers, social security numbers, birth dates, etc… 

  3. Podcasts. Not the crazy kind. 

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