Why Cell Phone Installment Plans Won’t Help You Be Debt Free

On a snowy and cold day in Denver a couple of weeks ago, I trekked from the Hyatt Hotel downtown, where my company hosted a conference, five blocks to AT&T to buy new phones for David and me. I expected my trek to and from and transaction to be rather quick, since I new what I wanted and already had an AT&T phone plan. AT&T expected differently.

You see, the night before, my phone fell on the concrete floor in our condo and was all but dead. My screen broke. The phone occasionally vibrated, but I’m not sure why. Someone could’ve called or text and I wouldn’t know.

It wasn’t a complete loss. We planned to buy new phones in a couple of months anyway. The last phones we bought were iPhone 4Ss. Not only were they slow beyond belief, they were practically falling apart, only held together by our bumpers. Our bumpers themselves were falling apart. We had the money and it seemed like a good reason to finally make the upgrade, despite having qualified for upgrades two years ago. Two years ago, we didn’t need new phones and didn’t see the reason to upgraded just cause we qualified.

Anyway, I barley got my foot in the door at AT&T when an excited and friendly rep greeted me with her iPad in hand. She asked what I needed and I told her. She asked if she could pull up our AT&T account on her iPad and I approved. She read the details of our plan and confirmed that we qualified for upgrades that gave us a discount off our new phones depending on which new plan we signed. This particular exchange took a bit longer than it should’ve in my opinion, but I digress.

After she confirmed everything there was to know about me, David, our existing AT&T plan and our old phones, she finally let me out of the foyer and into the museumesque store. Different phones were placed on the store walls under bright lights as if they were important art pieces. She walked me to the iPhone display. I knew I wanted two 64 GB phones, one black, which Apple calls Space Gray, and one with a white front and silver back, which Apple just calls Silver.

Fine. We made some progress, due mostly to me. The AT&T rep then explained that AT&T now offers payment plans, a service called AT&T Next, and she somehow deduced that the $31.21 per month for 18 month plan suited me best. I told her I’m good with cash. Actually, I paid for both phones with my United/Visa credit card because we need a vacation. Gotta get those miles. I will pay my credit card balance by the end of the month.

My disinterest in AT&T Next concerned her because I would be charged an activation fee of $40 then and for all future upgrades. With AT&T Next, I could upgrade anytime after 18 months “free of charge”. Even for a slow math wiz like me, I quickly calculated that this plan would help me stay debt free.

With our $450 discount, each phone cost us $300. I could pay the net balance of $600 immediately and be done with it. We’ve shown that we keep our phones longer than two years and likely won’t buy new phones before we qualify for another discount.

If the AT&T rep had her way, I’d pay $31.21 a month for 18 months. Which means, in ten months, I’d pay $312, $12 more than the phones were worth. Then, I’d have to pay another $250 over the course of another eight months so that I could upgrade “free” of an activation fee. Wow! Sounds convenient.

Of course, with the activation fee of which I’d assume with my payment method, it would take nearly 11 months to break even. Still, my way would save seven months of payments to AT&T.

After much discussion, too much in fact, the AT&T rep agreed that my debt free plan was the best solution for our needs. She then went to “the back”, which must be in a galaxy far far away, and returned more than ten minutes later with our future phones. At this point, the rep invited me to sit on AT&T’s couch to set up our phones. This is something we can do ourselves and I probably should’ve just said, “I’m good. Thanks.” and left, but I didn’t and that makes for a more compelling story.

She linked our current phone numbers to our new phones. I had to sign two contracts with a stylus on an iPad that made my signature look like an ax murderer’s. She showed me a few new features, including AT&T’s apparently amazing App that she had to download for me. The big pitch for AT&T’s app is that I could make a payment at anytime. This payment feature, too, is lost on us, as we have our monthly AT&T phone bill automatically deducted from our checking account. Such are the habits of the money conscious.

After what seemed like an eternity from the time I stepped foot out of The Hyatt Hotel and into the snow and stepped back inside, my seemingly simple excursion was finally over. I was perplexed by how long it took to buy something about which I had so much certainty. I had no power to expedite the process. There were decisions, specifications, negotiations and contracts. I thought that by the time my transaction was over I’d be able to drive my new iPhone back to the Hyatt. The iPhone 6 doesn’t do that. Maybe the iPhone 6+ does.

If I want a bag of chips at the grocery store, I’m in and out in seconds contingent on the checkout line. My AT&T experience was not similar and had I thought $31.21 for 18 months is cheaper than $300 at once, I would be out about $250.

I wonder if Common Core prepares students for this kind math?

Have you had an experience like this? Please share your story.

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One Comments

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