My 76-year-old mother-in-law came to me about a year ago asking for advice about buying a new mobile phone. Her contract with Verizon had expired long ago, she said, and she was interested in buying a new phone but cutting her monthly spending on service. She was intrigued by the iPhone 5s, which had been released a few months earlier, and wasn’t keen on switching service providers – which, admittedly, can be a headache.
I’ve spent more than a few years covering the mobile industry. So I told her I’d do some legwork for her that would save her a bundle – she could get the coverage and service she needed at a much better price, and all on a new smartphone that would enable her to use the cool apps she’d never been able to access on her aging “feature” (or “dumb”) phone. And she could get all that without succumbing to a ridiculous two-year contract that would, in effect, inflate the price she pays for a phone.
Why was I so sure? Because she doesn’t travel much and probably doesn’t need the coverage offered by the nation’s best – and, usually most expensive – mobile network. Also, like many seniors, she doesn’t constantly use technology and shouldn’t be paying through the nose for buckets of mobile data she almost surely won’t use. And while the iPhone is a great smartphone with top-notch processing power and an amazingly intuitive user interface, she was unlikely to take advantage of any but the most basic features and apps.
Some network operators sell handsets and services specifically designed for seniors, although those offerings aren’t heavily advertised because they aren’t very lucrative. Verizon offers three basic phones starting at $150; the price can be paid monthly for users willing to sign a two-year contract. And Verizon’s Nationwide 65 Plus Plan includes a slim 200 minutes of voice time for $30 a month. But text messaging is not included in the plan, and going over your allotment of voice time will cost a hefty 45₵ per minute.
For users who don’t need Verizon’s superior network, more attractive options exist. One obvious solution is any of the bargain-basement MVNOs – mobile virtual network operators, or service providers – that use other companies’ networks. While they typically don’t sell the hottest new smartphones, businesses such as Cricket, Boost Mobile, US Cellular and MetroPCS offer reasonably priced handsets (often including the iPhone) that may be refurbished or simply not top-of-the-line. This means those handsets will run almost all of the most popular apps that even the most expensive smartphones can support. Cricket, for instance, sells the entry-level iPhone 5c for $450, and service can be had starting at $40 a month.
Some MVNOs offer more basic phones as well, targeting budget-conscious users who aren’t craving to play, say, Candy Crush Saga. Boost Mobile sells a pre-owned Kyocera Coast for a measly $15, and provides basic data, talk and text service for $35 a month. And Walmart carries several TracFone handsets in the range of $10 to $15; users simply buy prepaid time as they need it.
Of course, some older users have more specific needs than just a basic phone at an affordable price, and a few service providers cater to those needs. Consumer Cellular offers a variety of plans starting at $10 a month (that includes no voice minutes but bills talk at 25₵ per minute), and users who want text messaging and Internet access can add any of six data plans. Consumer Cellular also offers everything from ultra-affordable basic phones to several iPhone models.
GreatCall, on the other hand, offers only two Samsung models – one basic handset and one smartphone – and its lowest-price voice service is $15 for 50 monthly minutes. Additional talk time and data packages are available. GreatCall also includes some compelling features such as unlimited 24/7 access to health care providers, reminders to take medications, and an app that helps friends and family members keep tabs on the user. And phones from both GreatCall and Consumer Cellular are selected for their simplicity and usability.
There are clearly many options, then, for users who don’t need extensive nationwide coverage and cutting-edge phones with all the bells and whistles. I wasn’t shocked, however, when my mother-in-law opted to stay with Verizon and upgrade to the Phone she’d been eyeing. She’s paying way too much, but she loves it. The heart wants what it wants, I suppose.