Every month when you see your cell phone bill, you wonder if you should change carriers to save money. You know there are more economical options. But you also wonder if a cheaper plan means dropped calls, missing text messages, slow data, and lousy customer service.
You really want a frugal cell phone plan that gets good reception at home and when you travel. But you’re not sure how difficult it is to switch companies and whether it’s worth the trouble.
Vicki’s used frugal cell phone plans for almost a decade and saved thousands of dollars. It’s definitely worth trying out low-cost options because you can always go back to your current provider or try another service if you’re not happy!
Read on to learn more about how MVNO's (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) work, the pros and cons of cheaper cellular options, and the frugal cell service providers using the same network as major cellular carriers.
How Do MVNO's work?
A Mobile Virtual Network Operator resells wireless communication services from the major carriers – Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile (who merged with Sprint in 2020). After negotiating wholesale rates, these low-cost operators then resell service on the major carriers’ network using their own brand names.
Customers that choose prepaid cell service plans are usually buying from an MVNO. You'll get service from the smaller virtual operators on an extensive network for a much lower cost. And you won't get stuck in a contract either!
Most MVNO's allow you to “BYOD” (bring your own device), but many also offer various cell phones that work on their network. If you want to BYOD, make sure that you check the compatibility of your device on the operator's website.
To address the competition they were getting from a growing number of MVNO's, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile all offer their own prepaid plans now too. There's a good chance smaller operators will offer you lower prices, but some people still prefer buying prepaid deals from “brand name” carriers.
Pros and Cons of Cheaper Cell Phone Options
Besides saving you money, low-cost cell phone services have many other benefits. Some of the other pros include:
- decent coverage areas (same as the major network associated with the MVNO)
- great data speeds (up to the limit you purchase, usually reduced after that)
- easy to keep your phone number (it gets “ported” to the new carrier)
- no contracts (you can switch to a different service or back to your original provider if you aren't happy)
- many offer mobile apps to track your usage and access your account
- some have bonuses and reward programs
- taxes and fees are included in the low price of some MVNO plans
There are also some drawbacks to frugal cellular plans that you should consider. Some of the cons include:
- deprioritization (if the network gets busy and slows data speeds, customers that pay more may have faster data) *Author note – I have never noticed this happening to my service.
- customer service isn't 24/7 for some companies, and some have many complaints about service (*but you'll see plenty of complaints about the big carriers if you look online too)
- many of these companies are 100% online (no brick-and-mortar stores to visit)
- your phone may not be compatible with the service you are most interested in using
- you may have to pay off your device to get out of a contract with a primary network provider
Our suggestion? Don't dismiss low-cost cell phone plans until you research them thoroughly.
As with other reviews, people often are quick to complain, but many happy customers don't take the time to write reviews. The low-cost carriers wouldn't stay in business if most people weren't pleased with their service.
What are the best cell phone plans for snowbirds?
There are several frugal cell phone plans for those living the snowbird lifestyle. Here are a few of the best.
If you're a fan of Verizon, there are a couple of great MVNO's to consider.
Total Wireless. I used Total Wireless for over four years and saved more than a thousand dollars a year (compared to Verizon). We currently have four lines with unlimited talk, text, and a shared 100GB of data for just over $100 a month (including taxes).
We used our own phones and managed our accounts through the TW app. When I needed customer service (rarely), I called or used the online chat feature for resolving issues. We get Verizon coverage for a much lower price!
Learn more about Total Wireless and the service plans and products they offer. Wal-Mart also carries Total Wireless phones, SIM cards, and service plan refill cards.
Visible Wireless. Visible's plans are similar in price to Total Wireless. But they also offer some unique options such as party pay, where everyone in a “party group” plan gets an individual account and bill. That way, everyone saves money (each line added is a $5 savings) – but no one person is responsible or sees the activity on other lines.
Verizon Prepaid. On the prepaid website, Verizon entices customers to “stay with us” and earn loyalty discounts. But you'll notice right away that initial service plan costs are higher, and add-ons – such as mobile hotspot use – may come with an additional monthly fee. A big bonus for some people is the ability to walk into a Verizon store for help from their customer service. That's not an option with the MVNO's above – although Wal-Mart employees may be able to assist with some Total Wireless questions.
AT&T also has some great MVNO options that can save you money on cell service.
Cricket Wireless. On Cricket's website, you'll notice their 4 lines for $100 plan. This is similar to some other MVNO group or family plan options. One bonus with Cricket? You may be near an authorized retailer, so you can go into a store to ask questions. Check out their website to browse plans and shop for phones. If your phone is compatible, they also allow you to bring your device to Cricket.
Airvoice Wireless. I tried Airvoice Wireless years ago, but we get much better reception on the Verizon network. But my parents and siblings have used Airvoice for years because AT&T offers stronger cell signals in their area. Airvoice’s motto is “make it threeasy” – pick a plan, pay, and activate. My family has no complaints at all about Airvoice, and they plan on continuing their service.
AT&T Prepaid. AT&T offers some very competitive prices – especially if you're willing to pay ahead and sign up online. You can get 8 GB of high-speed data (unlimited talk/text) each month for a year for $300. That works out to $25 a month. It also includes a free SIM card and no activation fee. Other options are available, too – but that deal should catch your attention if you are a regular AT&T customer!
T-Mobile (Sprint) MVNO's
If you're lucky enough to have great coverage through T-Mobile, you'll have a lot of fantastic low-cost MVNO options to choose from.
Tello. One interesting feature about Tello is the “build your own plan” option. You can choose minutes of talk, number of texts, and the amount of data that suits your needs. They have popular plans to choose from, but you get to see how it changes your bill as you adjust amounts. Unlimited options are available too. And you might be surprised at how little they cost compared to your current plan.
Ting Mobile. One of the first things you'll notice on Ting's site is the focus on being in control of your usage and rate. Ting aims to keep things simple and to give you reliable service at a very low price. Its use-based service appeals to people who spend more time on WiFi and don't require unlimited data plans.
Mint Mobile. When you access the Mint Mobile website, you'll notice various plans ranging in price from $15 -$30. That includes unlimited talk & text and 4 GB of high-speed data for $15. This is an excellent deal for people who need data each month to check emails, surf websites, or watch a few videos online. You can also scale up the data amount at reasonable rates or pay for 6 or 12 months of service and get deep discounts.
Republic Wireless. This is one of the oldest MVNO options around. I started using Republic when it began back in 2012. While they had some growing pains, it was an overall terrific service that was very responsive to customers (and still enjoys a large fan base). You'll find that it's one of the most flexible and affordable cell phone services available because they off-load some service to WiFi when possible. Republic also offers deep discounts (2 months free) when you pay for service annually.
Boost Mobile. When you reach the Boost Mobile website, you’ll notice that the first offer you see focuses on saving money with plans starting at $15. At that price point, you'll get 2 GB of data (with mobile hotspot) and unlimited talk and text if you bring your own device. “Mix and match” options to create your family plan allow you to select different data amounts to meet your needs. Boost also has brick-and-mortar stores you can visit.
T-Mobile Prepaid. You can get a T-Mobile Prepaid plan for just $15 a month. It includes unlimited talk & text, along with 2.5 GB of high-speed data. If you stay with this plan, they increase your data by 500 MB each year through 2025. You can shop a variety of prepaid plans that fit your needs on their website. If you’re looking for multi-line discounts, research your options here.
MVNO's Using a Combination of Big Networks
There are a few MVNO’s that use more than one major network to provide cell service to customers.
Consumer Cellular. You may have heard of Consumer Cellular from AARP. (If you are an AARP member, you’ll also get a 5% discount on Consumer Cellular.) This service uses a combination of the AT&T and T-Mobile networks. When you look at plans, you'll notice that they are more expensive than some of the other MVNO's. For example, two lines with unlimited talk & text and a shared 15 GB of data runs $61.75 with the AARP discount – and that doesn't include taxes and fees.
Straight Talk. My kids used Straight Talk before Total Wireless existed. According to their website, “Straight Talk offers service on all 4 (now 3) major networks, so most phones work with us.” If you want to bring your own device, Straight Talk will help you figure out how to get access that works on that device. We found them to be more expensive than Total Wireless for our current needs. You can learn more about Straight Talk on their website or by checking out their products at Wal-Mart.
Google Fi. “Smarter pricing and smarter coverage, from Google.” I used Google Fi when they first started testing MVNO’s. It was a really good service, but I found myself paying more than I would with other plans. Google Fi uses a flexible model where you only pay for the data you use. But they also offer unlimited data plans starting at $60/month. If you travel out of the country frequently, this service can save you headaches when it comes to your phone service. You don’t need a foreign SIM to access calls, text, and data. The networks used by Google Fi are T-Mobile and another large carrier, U.S. Cellular.
Final Thoughts on Frugal Cell Phone Plans
If you want to save money on your cell phone service, definitely consider one of the lower-cost cellular operators. Some of them have been around for almost a decade, and they provide customers with a very similar experience at a greatly reduced price.
It will take time to learn about your options. But you'll pay yourself back by saving 30-50% or more off of your current monthly cell phone bill. You can put your savings in the bank, invest them, or splurge on a little extra fun each month!