Selecting a wireless carrier has become even more confusing in recent years.
All of the major carriers, AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS), and Sprint (NYSE:S), offer slightly different deals, and all four, at some level, claim to be the best. What's challenging is that depending upon your needs, all of those claims could be correct.
Even with T-Mobile and Verizon simplifying their number of plans and those two being joined by Sprint in dropping contracts, it has not gotten any easier for consumers. How much data will you actually use? What happens if you go over? Should you buy your phone? Lease it? Or is it worth switching to (or staying with) AT&T in order to get a phone on a two-year subsidized contract?
It's a world fraught with pitfalls and landmines where what's right for me may be a terrible choice for you. There is one thing however that many of us are doing wrong and we're likely going to keep doing it going forward. It's a mistake you can make with any carrier and if you can avoid it, it's sure to save you money.
You want the best, you've got the best
The mistake we're making as wireless customers is that we're seduced by the idea of owning the top-tier phones. There was a time when this made sense, a day when the Apple iPhone or even the latest BlackBerry (NYSE:BB) was so superior to its cheaper rivals that paying more for it made sense.
Now, it's hard to make the argument that its worth paying $650 or so for a top-tier phone when you can buy something a little less sexy, but with most, if not all, of the same functionality for under $200.
The seduction of the flagship phone
For most of the history of the wireless phone in the United States the entire business model has been built around finding ways to get people to buy flagship phones. The rapidly disappearing subsidized two-year contract was all about helping consumers acquire a top-tier phone at a manageable price. In exchange for paying a higher monthly rate subscribers got a a phone which cost around $650 for $199.
The current equivalent to the fool's bargain which was subsidized plans is the lease. In this case the customer gets a top-tier phone (usually the latest iPhone) at a lower price per month than it would cost to finance the device. In some cases these plans come with the right to trade up to the newest model (for a fee) and on the surface they seem like a cost-effective way to always have the latest, greatest phone.Much like leasing a car, when you lease a phone you never own anything, so there's no trade-in value to recoup.
No matter your payment model, the real issue remains that as a consumer you're paying for more phone than you need and you're paying for it dearly.
Let's look at the numbers
A flagship phone costs around $649.99 (and up) which works out to $27.08 extra paid per month if you finance the phone over a two-year period. Even if you lease the phone you will likely pay $15-$20 a month -- a little less, but still too much.
If you opt for a cheaper -- but still highly functional phone -- you can cut your costs to under $200. CNET shows a number of models in its list of 2015 phones which fit the bill, but let's look at the Motorola Moto G, which it calls "one of the best affordable unlocked smartphones around right now."
The phone retails for $179.99 which, if financed, costs $7.50 a month over 24 months. That's half the price of even the lowest leasing deal for a phone which CNET called "a do-pretty-much-everything-you-need 5-inch Android smartphone."
The Moto G is of course only one example. There are now countless high-function, good enough or even pretty good phones for under $200 (and even under $100 if you're willing to go refurbished).
We're paying for vanity
We used to need iPhones and other flagship models because they had features which cheaper phones lacked. That's simply not the case anymore as budget phones can be found with features like top-notch cameras and fingerprint recognition which used to be available only with premium models.
Most of us tie our selection of a wireless plan into our selection of a phone. In reality the phone should come first and most of us are making a mistake if we spend big bucks just to be able to say we have the latest top-tier model.
No matter which carrier you pick there is no need to finance or lease a flagship model. Buying a model with less prestige and marketing hype will save you around $450 over two years versus purchasing a top-tier handset, and at least $160 over even the cheapest lease.
Paying extra to have the latest and greatest simply no longer makes sense when you can have nearly all, if not all, the same functionality for a fraction of the price. Select a wireless plan that meets your calling needs and then finance or outright buy a bargain phone.
You may not get to sit at the cool kids' table, but you'll have a lot more money in your pocket.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He does not follow his own advice and has an iPhone 6 on a two-year contract. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.