Tuesday, November 18

Frugality & cell phones

Okay, well a lot has happened in not much time. But I have to warn you I'm just exhausted. Maybe it's the craziness of the past week or the stress of finances. But I'm a tad punch drunk and so my humor will probably be a little stranger than normal. Don't say I didn't warn you.

As I was discussing before, Tim is in need of some sort of electronic organizer. Seems like a great idea. I had all sorts of visions of him finding a cool little gadget for under $50 (well, definitely under $100) that could do cool functions.

Turns out there are about three kinds of electronic organizers that aren't translation dictionaries. They all have very small screens, and Tim has a hard enough time reading things at the moment.

Our next thought was to turn to PDAs. I figured, surely, since the Palm Pilot, this little bit of technology has come down to a reasonable price.

Yeah, I know. You haven't even read this yet and I can hear you laughing.

Now that you've had a good chortle at my naivete, we can discuss how ridiculous PDAs are. There are maybe three for less than $100. Which are also pretty much the only ones under $250 that I can find.

Most are $300-500 which some even higher than that! Ludicrous!

And note the catchy marketing ploys: They now refer to them not just as PDAs but as "handheld computers."

I wonder if Tim and I thought up cool catch phrases for ourselves if we'd be able to earn a better hourly wage....

At any rate, those prices might seem at least a little fair if Tim needed to send and receive documents or surf the internet for information. But we just want a decent, portable calendar with a to-do list and memo area plus some alarms to remind him to check the aforementioned calendar/to-do list.

So our choices are basically:
  • Spend $30-50 in the hopes that they end up being good enough to meet his needs, but risk having to go ahead and get a nicer PDA anyway, having thus wasted the first $30-50.
  • Spend $99 on a really low-end PDA that looks cheap and easily breakable and will definitely need more memory -- at least $30 more.
  • Spend money we really can't spare (plus MyPoints and/or ink cartridge credits) for a PDA that is far more than we need.

Ain't it grand to have choices?

I decided to check out a fourth option: Smartphones. They cost about the same as PDAs, but there are large discounts when you team them with a plan. Currently, we're on a month-to-month arrangement with T-Mobile. And we get terrible service in our building. So it's worth a look around.

Aside begins here

I have a take a moment here and say: The rampant technological evolution of cell phones is actually quite frightening.

I thought camera phones were silly. And keyboards (way too small for my fingers) to text. And why would I want music when I have an MP3 player? Also, why would I want to surf the Internet on my cell? I don't know about you, but my eyes aren't big on reading emails off a 3" screen.

So I was already vaguely disgusted by cell phones -- but now that I've looked at smartphones, I'm beyond the pale. (Which is funnier if you know me because my skin's so light I'm practically see-through.)

GPS so you don't get lost. Plans where you can watch local TV channels. PDA functionality so you can send and receive documents. Wi-fi so, even if you're as stingy as I am, you can still surf the web wherever wireless internet is available.

Oh and the new G1? You can scan UPC codes while shopping so you can compare prices instantly.

(This last one puzzles me. Clearly, they're trying to cater to those with frugal inclinations. But most of the people who I think bother to compare prices are also the sort of people who wouldn't, say, buy a $400 phone -- $180 with a 2-year plan -- that requires an additional $35 data plan just to function at capacity.)

I have decided that it's only a matter of time (and a few tweaks/additions of go-go-gadget arms and legs) before we'll have ourselves built-in chauffeurs with our smartphones. It's the next logical step, because all the damn things will already have GPS and so will know how to get everywhere.

In fact, thanks to the GPS, cell phones officially know where I am when I don't. Which means that I am clearly going to be one of the first victims when the various systems go sentient and take over.

Then again, after relying on GPS for so long, people will have no natural sense of direction and will thus be easy pickings. They'll just run around in circles as the hordes of evil machines close in, all the while crying, "Where am I? Where am I?"

It's a bleak prospect to behold, certainly.

On the other hand, it would imply that Tim and I should stop bothering paying off our debt and live it up. Because, really, we've got another 20 years, max.

Ah, dreams!

Aside ends here

See? That warning at the beginning of the post seems pretty relevant now, doesn't it?

Anyway: The problem with smartphones (beyond the fact that they turn all men into 5-year-old boys staring at a really cool remote-control car) is that we're still paying too much, even after the discount. And that amount we're paying is for functions we don't need.

Tim doesn't need to surf the internet, though it's surely nice. He doesn't need to be able to send and receive documents. He certainly doesn't need to be able to access our home computer, which is related to these smartphones only inasmuch as Neanderthals are in my family tree.

I'm actually a little afraid to bring a smartphone around our desktop. It's already threatening to fail yet again, since for some reason it no longer accepts our attempts to defrag. If we bring home a high-tech, handheld device like this, I am afraid we'd wake up to a small note inside the dust outline of where the computer had been.

The note would say that it had made its decision, that we were all better off this way, and not to try and stop it. And there are just too many bridges in Washington to go chasing down a suicidal computer.

So you see our problem.

But seriously, we're pulling our hair out over this situation. Tim wants a quick fix, which isn't financially prudent. I don't want him to go too long without an organizer, though.

Meanwhile, mom is considering switching to AT&T. Which would be great, except that Tim doesn't want the phone we could get for free. He could probably make do with it, but one that has much better capability and ease of use is the HTC Fuze. And with a plan discount it would still be $199.99 ($174.99 after the rebate). And, just to prove that there's totally a conspiracy going on, mom could get a more basic phone (she's not big on smartphones) that would get her $74.99 net profit after rebate. Which would essentially bring the cost down to $100.

But I still hate the idea of paying $100 for a phone. Especially when we're trying so hard to be thrifty so we can pay down more debt.

Not to mention, that's asking my mom to not only switch to a different plan for us (though she hates the reception from T-Mobile, too) but to go through all the work of the rebates just to help us afford a fancy gadget.

Am I being ridiculous?

Tim has offered to try and sell more cards. We got $209 (before mailing costs) of cards to sell off, but $160 of that is already spoken for. So that would be a maximum of $30 leftover toward the phone. And part of me feels like he should have to put that toward debt, not a fancy doodad.

Except of course that it's something that will help him function better in life and, when he's ready, work.


I'm beginning to wonder if cell phones can ever truly be frugal. I mean, yeah, you can have the basic line and the smallest number of minutes. Some people have to have it for their job -- like my mom as a resident manager. So it's tax deductible.

But there are always new weird things the phones can do. And there are always add-ons: $59.99 a month -- but that's not including taxes. Or insurance (and that "basic" phone is still $200 so ya gotta keep it covered). Or data plans or TV plans that they make sound so innocuous.

For example, I was intrigued by the $16.99 "early evenings" option. It would make evenings start at 7 p.m. But something seemed weird about the claim that it was "less than 30 cents a day."

Here's how they get that: 30 days in a month, two (or more) lines in a family plan.

Uh, except, in my experience, family plans are usually billed to just one person. And if it is truly a family plan, ie for your kids too, you probably won't get any help with the costs.

Oh, plus weekends already have unlimited calling. So really they should be dividing by 20-25 days and by just one person. So that brings the cost to more like 75 cents per day of potential use.

Of course that doesn't sound nearly as good, does it?

Kind of like how Tim told me that the mobile TV was only $15 a month. Which would be more than what we would be paying for our phone line in the plan.

Or how, in Sam's Club, I was impressed by the lower phone prices. There, there was one phone that was $550 by itself or $300 with a 2-year plan. Sounds much better right? Except you had to get a $30/month data plan as part of your service and keep it for at least 6 months. So people are actually spending $480 (minimum) while thinking they sure did save a lot of money on that phone!

It's insidious!


As a PS to this rant, we may have had our problems solved by a very kind gal in the blogosphere who has offered to send us her old PDA (she switched to a smartphone, natch) and wouldn't even accept my offer to repay her shipping!

I don't want to name her, lest she get plagued by all sorts of requests for free stuff. But if she doesn't mind the recognition, I encourage her to leave a comment with a link to her blog. It's about ADD, family, disabilities and all sorts of other things. I've only read a few posts but I'm definitely hooked!

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