11.10.2013

How To Save a Ton of Money

Several years ago, I wrote a post called How to Save $2,000, in which I outlined my plan to purchase an iPod Touch instead of upgrading from a traditional frill-free cell phone plan to a smartphone. That worked out pretty well for us. I took it a step further than simply keeping the data-free plan. Shortly after we moved to Illinois, I ditched my Verizon plan and got a Tracfone. Using it only for traveling and emergencies (and, I'll admit, often leaving it uncharged in the drawer for weeks on end), it has cost me about $100/year to maintain; Ben's has cost about the same. I used to be a heavy cell phone user, and thought I would miss it. I haven't, for the most part. I do miss having unlimited Verizon-to-Verizon minutes (Lara), but the fact of the matter is that I am often by a phone, and don't really need to have one in my pocket, too. And, having a device - first an iPod, and now an iPad - that has wifi has proved hugely helpful. If I'm out for the day without my cell and need to communicate with someone, it is not too hard to find a free hotspot.

So. We've been paying for a landline with unlimited long distance for several years now. After our last move we got tricked into a terribly expensive plan - truly tricked; I had to report the phone company to both the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Communications Commissions, so overt was the fraud involved. The company admitted the fraud and gave us a cheap plan for a year, after which the rates skyrocketed. We just paid it; without regular cell phones, we really need a landline and a way to connect with far-off friends and family. That said, a couple months ago I got fed up and started investigating alternatives. This is what I figured out.

We still have Tracfones, which supposedly roam on any existing signal. They aren't quite as dependable as other phones, but aside from a few really frustrating fails, they are fine. I upgraded to a top-of-the-line Tracfone at the end of the summer; it is laughably awful compared to Apple products, but it can access the internet, send text messages (for 1/3 of a a minute each), and it has a better screen than my old flip phone. (I even bought a $7 case for it that helps it pass for a normal cell phone!)
I wouldn't go so far to say that it is a "smart" phone, but it's smarter than the one I used to have. I also bought a card that gave me one year of service plus four hundred minutes, which was subsequently tripled since the phone came with triple minutes for life.

I dropped long distance from our landline and signed up for a plan that allots us 250 local minutes per month. I don't recall exactly how much it is (it is bundled in with Internet), but our total bill went from more than $80/month to about $50/month. Not exactly chump change.

This is the magic part. I downloaded an app called Talkatone onto my iPad. (I wish I could say this was the result of a lot of studious research, but the truth is that I was way too tired and sore the day of the half marathon to go downstairs and fetch the phone, so I randomly searched for a free telephone app in the iTunes Store so that I could call my parents.) Talkatone works on iOS and Android devices through Google Voice. To make and receive calls (for free!) from it, you establish a Google Voice account - easy enough since I already have a Google account.

After poking around a bit I learned that I could actually have calls to my Google Voice number ring to both my iPad (through Talkatone) and my existing Tracfone. Accepting calls on my Tracfone does use my precious few and relatively expensive minutes, but if I am in a place with wifi I can pick up on my iPad. Best of all, voicemails are sent to both devices as well as emailed - with a transcript as well as an audio file - to my gmail account. If I wanted, I could also have our home phone ring when my Google Voice number is called.

This is not as convenient as having a smartphone with unlimited talk, text, and data. But those plans are wildly expensive, even if you find a "bargain". If you really want to save money, cutting out a data plan and traditional cell phone is a pretty effective way to do so. With a decent device with a couple key apps (Skype/FaceTime, Talkatone) and a Tracfone, you can dramatically reduce monthly expenses.

I joked at the time that I could save $2,000, but I'm pretty sure I've saved at least that much, if not far more.

ETA: It looks like I won't be able to continue the Talktatone hack for much longer. Drats. But I'm hoping google comes up with a comparable method via the hangout app. 

https://plus.google.com/app/basic/stream/z12adjoxspeaul03w23qdztx1yart1zrc04

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