Updated on 09.19.14

Frugality, Usability, and Phone Shopping

Trent Hamm

About a year ago, I decided to get a low-end smartphone, mostly so I could check and make sure The Simple Dollar was still up and running from the road and perhaps tweet on occasion. I wound up with a low-end Blackberry that I got for just a few dollars and got the low-end data plan from our cell phone provider (because I didn’t intend to use it too heavily).

I chose that Blackberry sight unseen, mostly because I’d read reviews of it and it seemed like a ridiculously good deal. And it was – I could resell the thing right now for roughly what I paid for it.

There was a huge problem, though, one that I should have known about in this situation.

My fingers are huge (I wear a size fifteen ring and I can make a normal can of soda actually disappear within my cupped hand). The buttons on a low-end Blackberry are tiny. Whenever I would attempt to do anything on the device, my fingers would hit two buttons almost every time. Dialing a number – let alone anything else – was virtually impossible for me.

Within three months, I was pretty much avoiding using the phone (to the annoyance of my wife and to people who would text me or call me). I’d use it when I had to, but the usage was really frustrating.

So, over the last few months, I’ve been carefully looking for a low-end phone compatible with my cell network (mostly talking to friends who seem to be great at finding electronics deals) with the caveat that it must have reasonably large buttons and, a few days ago, I switched to a phone that I can actually use – a Samsung Acclaim (no, not an iPhone or a Motorola Droid X or some other over-the-top overly expensive phone).

Lessons Learned from Phone Shopping1. Know exactly what you’re buying before you buy it

If you can, use it as much as possible first. Fifteen minutes of using that phone would have told me that it wouldn’t work for me, and it was due to a feature that would have only been covered in a very thorough review of the phone. Which brings us to…

2. Look for thorough reviews and read them carefully

A thorough review would have been very clear about the button size on the phone rather than simply talking about the user interface and information straight from the press release. If you’re looking at an item you’re going to rely on and use frequently, trusted and detailed reviews are vital. I usually start with Consumer Reports and move on from there.

These two tactics alone would have gone a long way towards ensuring that I made a wiser purchasing decision with my initial phone. However, there are a few more useful things to mention about all of this.

3. Use your social network as a shopping buddy

I have a few friends who do things like buying and selling new and used electronics on eBay and other such sites. Whenever I need electronics, I usually shoot them an email, as well as emails to anyone I know who has recently purchased a similar item, just to see what bargains they found in their search. Almost always, they find something for me that I would have never stumbled upon on my own.

Whenever you’re about to make a purchase, don’t be afraid to email your friends and colleagues about it. Mention what you’re buying, why you’re buying it, what features you’re looking for, and ask them what suggestions they have or deals they’ve found recently. You’ll be shocked at how much useful information you’ll get back.

Of course, the flip side is true. Whenever a friend emails me with such questions, I do my best to give them an answer with as much information as I have. It’s through this exchange of value that relationships are built – and it’s also through this exchange that I can ensure that the next time I have some sort of purchase in mind, I’ll have plenty of people willing to give me a useful response.

4. Think carefully about the features that you need in a phone

Mostly, I needed larger buttons and the ability to check The Simple Dollar from the road with enough richness that I can be sure all of the features of the site are working. I don’t have much need for a lot of the flashiness that other phones have. The phone I wound up with actually is a bit more feature-rich than I actually need, but I couldn’t argue at all with the price.

At the same time, I didn’t need to spend money on extra features. By being up front about the features I needed, the search process for the right phone at the right price became much easier. I wasn’t “amazed” or “taken in” by some of the features of higher-end phones. I simply looked for the best price on the features I wanted, which turned out to actually be very cheap, indeed. Any “extras” I happen to get beyond those key features – for free – are just a bonus.

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  1. Vicky says:

    Got my android powered G1 phone on the CHEAP when the Droids started coming out. Have to say it’s the best phone I’ve ever owned, and I’ve had it almost 2 years and I refuse to replace it unless it actually goes beyond working!

    But the reviews were what sold me! And the keyboard.. I hated how the iPhone didn’t have a real keyboard – so I went with that had a keyboard and did all the things I needed it to do, and I got two of them for quite cheap for the hubs and I.

    Thanks to reviews and playing with it in the store, we’re absolutely thrilled with our purchase, even 2 years later :)

  2. lurker carl says:

    Big fingers and little keys has an easy solution. Use a stylus or the eraser end of a pencil instead of your fingertips.

  3. Josh says:

    You should go show off your new phone to your old friends that you don’t hang out with anymore to get some “high-fives” ;)

    Also, how cheap did you get this and was it used? At least with my carrier, the samsung acclaim is around $100 with a 2 year agreement — retail is much higher than that.

  4. Maggie says:

    My family is all much larger than the average and I don’t think even a thorough review would always help. When we were car shopping, there was no substitute for sitting our butts in all of the seats to determine if there was enough room. Even cars that were consistently declared roomy in reviews left my 15 year old with his knees in his ears.

    Plenty of people could have love the keys on your old phone and you have know way to know that they all have thin pointy fingers.

  5. Des says:

    Yeah, he must have gotten it used because he says iPhones are “over-the-top overly expensive” and they only cost $100 now.

  6. jay says:

    Still using my 8+ year old z500a Sony Erikson-not even bluetooth! It still works great & looks OK despite flying across the concrete several times a year… Anyhow, AMEN to checking out a phone before purchasing. Goofy not to. Others in the family, with worse luck than I, make the trip to the local store to try out before purchasing online. Still makes me nervous, so we exploit/test all functions those first 30 days which are totally covered by our provider should we wish to return. Smart phones are so tempting, but would rather have a lower bill than all the bells and whistles. Great post.

  7. Hannah says:

    I have an “over-the-top overly expensive” Droid Incredible. I am extremely satisfied with it and will not be replacing it for at least 2 more years.

    ALL smartphones are drastically more expensive because of the data plans, so once I made the decision to bite the bullet and get one, it was a no-brainer to spend an extra hundred dollars up front for a phone that would stay relevant for many years. From my perspective, no smartphone is a very frugal choice, because they all come with high monthly bills, but the cheap ones become obsolete so much faster than the high end ones.

  8. Joe Lemon says:

    Well, I ended up consulting Trent on the iPhone vs. Droid vs. “crap phone” I ended up buying the iPhone 4 still. Yet, I have not regretted it at all. It’s probably one of the first “indulgent” purchases I’ve made since my financial “revelation” a year ago and quite honestly, I don’t know if it’s the phone that I’m completely happy about or the fact that it’s one of the first things I’d started saving up for months before that I’ve purchased. Probably a combination of both.

    I agree with Hannah that I know this isn’t really a “frugal” choice but, I dunno, it’s just a great device and is worth the extra $ every month to me. It’s now well protected (thanks for the free case Apple!) and I hope it will last a good two years or so.

    And though I’ve come to trust and use Consumer Reports often, I think they were flat out wrong in giving the iPhone 4 a “do not buy” review. Over an antenna issue (that has never really been a problem for me)? C’mon…but that’s another discussion entirely.

  9. Jacque says:

    Do you enjoy insulting your readers? I actually got my iPhone for free with my plan in Singapore, but if I was living in the US I’d spend the money for it there too. It fits my needs to keep my life organized, saves me time and combines several devices into one, all without making me crazy with slow operation and clunky operating systems like so many other “smartphones”. You should keep in mind that not all of your reader values are the same as yours and be careful not to turn them away with frivolous adjectives that don’t add to your point.

  10. kate says:

    to each his (or her) own. I got my cell phone and my husband’s cell phone for free when I signed a 2 year contract. We have unlimited nation-wide and plenty of texts for $32 a piece. I might never get a smart phone. For me, I already have the smart(er) phone.

  11. Joe L. says:

    FYI – the topic of costs related to modern technology, et al. was brought up at Get Rich Slowly today:


  12. SAFTM says:

    If you can fit a smart phone and its plan in your budget, I think they’re great. I got lucky because I got the iPhone 3G from my work for free (so the decision was easy) and my data plan was also partially covered. I also managed to save some money using price compare apps (I stopped counting at $50, but it’s probably over $100 (like shopsavvy – we have a son and used it to save forty dollars on a carseat alone).

    But I splurged and got an iPhone4 when it came out (my company still pays for some of my plan). I’m happy. I budgeted for it. It is my one real luxury item – my “latte factor” (I drink only company coffee and spend less than $25 per week on breakfast, lunch and snacks – not bad for me – I really kicked out a lot of the fluff). I guess I skimp in other places enough to make out for the splurge.

  13. J says:

    I got 2 Droids for ~$140 from Verizon Online. Not too bad.

  14. Bill says:

    There is a technique for typing on the Blackberry you need to only use the tips of your thumbs with the nail perpendicular the key board, You can not use the pads. I have short stubby fingers and it was very hard for me to get use to it. That said I got a new Samsung Captivate Android phone from my company today and it blows away the Blackberry.

  15. Robert says:

    My wife and I got two Droids thru Wirefly for a total of $20. We had dropped the landline long ago in favor of the cellphones and Skype (which was cheaper in total), and now we’ve dropped the cable internet for the phone data plans (same cost).
    I too have huge hands but I rarely sit down to the computer anymore and I sometimes wonder how I got along without this phone. : )

  16. cathleen says:

    iPhones are $99
    Is that an ” over-the-top overly expensive phone”?

    Wow, I remember the first “portable phone” I purchased (for a boss) and it was Motorola Brick for $1000! :) And the bill was $1000 a month, for real.

  17. Kate says:

    Does anyone have any tips for looking for online reviews? We live in a rural area so I do a lot of purchasing, sight unseen, over the internet. I look for reviews on almost everything that I purchase and feel like I have gotten pretty good at filtering reviews. But sometimes it is difficult to find them.

  18. endlessblink says:

    A great post about a very important subject. For me buying expensive electronic devices always comes with a great uncertainty and edginess. You never know if after all you read and learn about a specific product will fit your needs and won’t turn into a mass in the near future. Having a huge variety to choose from is great. But the price for having that variety is that you never know how good a product really is and how long it will last.

  19. Dan says:

    When you say expensive, I assume that you mean the upfront cost of purchasing the phone.

    I am curious, how much did you buy it for and how much is the data plan you purchased? (I purchased my Droid from CostCo for $99.) Is $30 for unlimited data significantly different than what you currently have?

    How much do you value your lost utility of not using it and trying to research a new phone?

    I think you would thoroughly enjoy an Android phone (even a low end one), with its many free and effective applications. Please consider it in your search.


  20. anita hampl says:

    Last month I bought a new refrigerator online. Spent all Sunday afternoon and night reading reviews, including CR. Thought I had a great price on the HHGregg site and free removal and delivery.
    While in a client meeting that Tuesday I received 3 texts from DH and sons complaining that it was delivered and there was no icemaker! (That explains the great price LOL).
    You can bet that I when I shop for ICE TRAYS I will look for “thorough” reviews!

  21. Leah says:

    I agree! I try to play with everything before I buy (or, at the least, a closely comparable model). Just bought a point & shoot for my boyfriend, and I went to several different camera stores to try out options before we bought. My current phone was bought sight-unseen, but I had owned other models that were super similar and wasn’t worried — turns out I’ve kept the phone for four years now!

    In terms of just buying online, Kate, I try to find forums of people who might be interested in what I’m buying. Or specific websites that review that stuff. I’m not sure about cell phones, but there’s lots of good review sites for cameras.

  22. Jim says:

    An over-the-top phone that you’ll keep for 2 years????

    Man, you people just don’t get it. You have so been sucked into I need it because the marketing people say it’s cool. You don’t use half the features on it, and you pay for a data plan you really don’t need. Unless you’re a trader or need to check your website when you’re on the road like Trent, do you really need to check what Paris Hilton is doing on a 2 inch screen?

    Stop living through other peoples eyes!

  23. Carol says:

    Please beware of using your *social network as a shopping buddy* as far as luring you into purchasing something you don’t need. I was not in the market for a mop, but a friend highly recommeded the steamer mop as a wonderful thing. I was ready to run out to the store and purchse one immediately based on her recommendation. Luckily, I asked another friend their opinion and they didn’t feel so strongly – she had one I could borrow to try it myself. I did just that and also gave it thumbs down which saved me from making a bad purchase.

  24. Crystal says:

    The data plans scare me since they are so much more expensive than the plan we have now. That said, we will be in the market in the next 6 months since I need a way to check my blog’s email from anywhere and Mr. BFS has wanted one for more than 2 years. I’ll be looking for ones that are known to last for years…like 3-5 at least because I hate buying new technology every year or two…

  25. Briana says:

    Ugh, cell phone buttons. My first phone was my favorite (2002?) and it had rubber buttons, numbers only, similar to a regular cordless phone. All upgrades between my first phone and my current iPhone, a basic Motorola and a Palm with a full keyboard, were terrible. My fingers are not fat, but my nails are longer and it made it impossible to press the little smooth plastic buttons.

    I paid extra for the Palm (employer covered up to a certain amount) and I regretted it.

  26. J.O. says:

    In agreement with lurker carl – use the eraser of an ordinary pencil. Cut the bottom half off the pencil if you want it to fit in your pocket more easily.

  27. Dan says:

    Why not get a Peek (www.getpeek.com)? $50 for the device, no contract and $15/month for unlimited email/text. I use a Peek + a really low-cost Nokia on pay as you go (since I am using less and less voice these days).

  28. I am about to look into getting a Trac phone, which I think you can purchase for about $20 from Walmart and depending on your usage, can get by on about $7 per month.

    If you don’t make alot of calls, its better than paying $40 or so per month for a traditional plan

  29. Helena says:

    I have no opinion on the phone thing, but I can’t be the only one who really wants you to put up a picture the disappearing-can-of-soda thing.

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