When Free Is Far From Free

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There is nothing, and we mean nothing, worse than expecting something for free, only to have the carpet yanked out from under you and find that free didn’t really mean free. As is the case today with many of the carrier specials on devices, free doesn’t mean it’s free or that it’s yours once you leave the store. Of course, putting things in perspective, carriers are dependent on keeping you in the loop long enough to pay off those expensive devices with their overpriced services, so one way or another, they have to keep you around. From the free iPhone 7 in the ad above to the Sprint “phone lease”, there are plenty of terrible options out there, but that shouldn’t keep you from snagging a great one when you can.

To separate out the deals, look for some key words like “trade in required” or “bill credits” that come attached to that free device. Usually the only deals that involve getting a great deal on a flagship quality handset will involve you having to port your number in from another carrier. This can be a bit of a trying experience to say the least, but if you read all the fine print and don’t mind a few hours at a carrier store to get everything worked out, you can usually walk away with a free to nearly free device after 24-30 months. Yes, this is how those “bill credits” work for getting that free device. If you purchase the device at full retail, under a payment plan, you will receive a bill credit for the amount of the device payment each month until the device is paid off. Now for a few of the catches.

Sometimes these deals require a bit more, such as requiring a port-in, which means no new phone numbers if you switch. Another popular one is that is may take 1-2 billing cycles for the credits to begin. Yet another is requiring an additional service, like phone insurance or a certain level plan (even if you don’t need it) in order to get the savings. All things said, these ‘free’ offers usually come with quite a bit of extra payments that will come out of your pocket in one way or another, and they still lock you in to that dreaded 2 year contract – even if this time it’s for the phone instead of the service. The best advice here is to look at the cost of the device, what the payments are and then calculate how much that free phone is going to cost. Look at the cost of the insurance plan they require you to have, or at the cost difference between the lower data plan you can actually use and that unlimited plan they make you sign up for to get the deal. Chances are, you’ll come out ahead buying the phone (or a slightly lesser model) and taking the lower plan. Also, make sure you read how quickly the payment credit takes effect. The zero down thing is great, but on modern day flagship devices, your first two bills could cost you as much as $70 for the first two payments before the credits kick in. Take that $160 a month T-Mobile deal for four lines and add $140 in phone payments for the first two billing cycles and see how much you have added to that flat rate bill when it arrives.

Unfortunately, buying a high end smartphone has turned into something more like purchasing a car. For better or worse, the days of walking into a store, getting your free or low cost phone for surrendering yourself to the same company for a year or two are gone. Gone are the days of spending $350 if you hate your coverage after 2 months. Gone are the days of a free phone with that service contract. Most of all, gone are the days of getting a value from your cellular carrier, because they no longer care about keeping you around once they have that phone contract in hand. They know they have you for $1000 if you leave and once you sign on that dotted line (or that magical little LCD in most cases) you are stuck with them for as long as you are making payments on that phone. Instead, look at options that keep you carrier free, like payments through sites like PayPal Credit or Affirm. These will usually allow you to get low to no interest payments on phones that will allow you to move from carrier to carrier instead of being locked for 24-30 months to one carrier. Companies such as HTC, Motorola and OnePlus all use third party solutions for financing purchases and Samsung even has their own financing. There are options out there that won’t tie you to a carrier, and it’s well worth it to take advantage of them in order to spread out payments without having to stay with one carrier.

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