Frugality, Usability, and Phone Shopping

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.