Canadian cell phone bills are still among the most expensive on the planet. Government intervention has helped bring the costs of data and other services down a little over the last few years. However, our relatively small population base, large geographic area and the lack of real competition will help ensure Canadians won’t see a significant reduction in mobile service and hardware pricing any time soon. But not all is lost. In fact, far from it.
Despite the landscape, there are easy ways to stay well ahead of the game. A few days ago, I upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S9 (not the S10, more on that below) for a total cost of less than $0. In addition to a $0 dollar phone, my carrier fully subsidized the cost of a quality case, a tempered glass screen protector, the hardware upgrade fee, and I still had a little money left over to apply to next month’s bill. All while keeping my great $55/month legacy plan. I think I made out like a bandit – and you can too once armed with a bit of knowledge. This post will discuss which factors to consider when hunting for your next cell phone bargain. They are, in no particular order, your actual data usage, the device technology itself, your relationship with your carrier, the importance of the loyalty/retention department, haggling, and thoughtful timing on when to buy. First up, when to buy:
Timing: Timing is everything. There’s only one simple rule to remember: Once the current year’s generation of phone is announced, it’s usually time to pounce on last year’s now-baby brother model. Six months ago my S9 would have cost almost $500 out-of-pocket. Last week, it was $150. About a week after the S10 was announced, it dropped to zero. I know this because I had left my name with a couple of different retailers asking them to call me when the cost hit the magic $0 or close to it. The day it hit zero was the day I bought. And my phone is (in my view) 99% as amazing as the $850 Samsung Galaxy S10, for $850 less. A no brainer as far as I’m concerned.
Data usage: How much data you consume in a typical month is also an important factor. Unless you are regularly exceeding your plan’s data limits, chances are you’re paying for more data than you actually need. Downgrade your data plan right now if you can. Downgrading will not affect the quality of the relationship you have with your carrier, and will save you money immediately. Even a $10 monthly savings adds up to $240 over the life of a typical 2-year contract. Ask yourself how much data you want vs. how much you actually need. If you want to stream YouTube video regularly without the benefit of wifi, be prepared to pay more for your data. Much more. If you do occasionally go over your data cap, take a close look at the overage amounts and compare that cost to occasionally going over on a cheaper tier plan. Overage charges are a great way for providers to scare consumers into “insuring” their usage limits with an overpriced plan. It may not seem intuitive, but sometimes it actually costs less money to pay for more overage on a cheaper plan.
Device Hardware: The gist of this section is “it doesn’t much matter”. Honestly. I’m going to use the industry terms leading edge and bleeding edge to make my case. In this post, leading edge is the Samsung Galaxy S9 (released 12 months ago) and bleeding edge is the Samsung Galaxy S10 (released this month). My personal bias is to never buy this year’s “new and exciting” bleeding edge unless some huge leap in technology has happened from last year. Whether it’s phones, TVs or laptops, bleeding edge is not only enormously expensive, it most often buys only incremental improvements.
Real World Performance: A popular website to compare cell phone specs is https://gsmarena.com. If you place the S9 and S10 side by side and look at the charts, the S10 does outperform the S9 in some aspects. It had better, the S10 is this year’s big news. But performance on a test bench and performance in the real world are different things. Rather than comparing specs, read the product reviews first. In most cases, any given review will conclude that an upgrade to a model one year newer may not make sense, but a phone two years or older may be worth considering. If you need this year’s latest and greatest for some reason, you will pay either up front or over the life of the contract term. My carrier was very excited to offer me this year’s S10 for “free”. At a plan difference of $35 more a month, which works out to $840 more over 24 months. It was either that or a one-year-old amazing phone for $840 less than that. Enough said.
Why the camera doesn’t matter: Because all modern phones have very good cameras. Unless you are a very talented and demanding photographer who also plans to keep your phone for well beyond 2 years, a fantastic camera is virtually a non-issue. Camera specs seem to be the biggest differentiating factor among modern cell phone manufacturers’ offerings. This makes sense since most of the rest of the phones’ capabilities don’t vary much from one device to the next. My advice is not to fall in love with a particular phone just because it has a great camera. I have frustrated salespeople to no end with a flat “Don’t care” response when they start trotting out the virtues of this or that phone’s “revolutionary” (read: pricey) camera. I’m relying on my trusty 10-year-old dSLR for any serious photos, not my phone. And if you’re a serious photographer, you’re probably already doing the same.
Your relationship with your carrier: Hopefully it’s a good one, meaning regular and full bill payment every month. If that’s not the case, start paying on time, in full, every month from now on. When your contract is up, that’s huge negotiating power. It’s a truism that it’s much harder to gain a customer than to keep one. Keep that in mind while holding for Tier II customer service, also known as the retention or loyalty department. To save yourself some time, ask to speak with retention straight away. The magic phrase is “Loyalty and retention please. Yes, I’ll hold”. The front line folks that initially answer the phone when you call are not authorized to give the kinds of deals that retention can. Politely but firmly insist you be put through to retention, where the real customer service begins.
Be the squeaky wheel: No matter how good a deal is, there is almost always something more on the table that you won’t get if you don’t ask. For me, it was an additional one month’s bill credit (on top of everything else I already had) if I agreed to sign a contract right then and there while at a retailer. And so I happily signed up right then and there.
Your deals and incentives may vary from carrier to carrier, but there is always phone goodness to be had when it’s time to renew. Happy shopping, I hope this post has helped, and please leave your thoughts in the comments below!