How to Minimize Your Phone Bill

Use less cellular data to both save money and become less attached to your phone.

Tech · 2143 words · 11 min read

Canada often ranks among the most expensive countries for wireless phone plans. Our current mobility-provider landscape consists of the Big Three national companies — Telus, Rogers, and Bell — dominating most (97%) of the market, with a few smaller providers piggybacking off the network infrastructure of these larger companies. In a few provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Québec), competitive provincial carriers drive down mobile-plan costs from the national carriers.

The overall rhetoric from the Big Three is that serving a small population dispersed across a large geographic area is expensive. A 2017 study, however, found that similarly-low-population-density Australia enjoyed phone plans over $37/month (all amounts CAD) cheaper than in Canada. Smaller providers (Freedom and Wind in Alberta) have attempted to offer competitively priced plans; however, my experience with these smaller providers is that coverage (reception) is usually limited to large urban centres and may not be as reliable in rural areas. (This is perhaps only a problem if, like me, you spend a lot of time outside the city ).

We Canadians have long spent far too much on our phone plans, which commentators mostly blame on the lack of competition among the three national carriers. Cell-phone plan reform received some attention in our very recent federal election, with election promises generally aiming to limit or reduce the cost of phone plans. There is even a fledgling industry of offering discounted mobile plans by taking advantage of inter-provincial pricing discrepancies (such as where a provincial carrier competes with the Big Three).

Election promises and geographic legerdemain notwithstanding, I want to propose another way to drastically reduce your monthly phone bill. After spending years paying $60+ per month for a basic voice, text, and data plan with Telus/Koodo, I got fed up with the price gouging and changed both my plan as well as my mentality toward my phone usage. For the last three years, my phone bill has averaged $22.43/month.

Here is how I did it — and why the benefits were not only to my wallet.

Prepaid Plans

Cell-phone contracts are expensive despite the oft-advertised “$0 upfront” to own the latest cell phones. Two-year contracts lock you in and guarantee high monthly phone bills ($75–100+ per month is the norm these days). Prepaid plans, however, can be a much cheaper alternative. It is in bringing your own device to a prepaid plan that you can most effectively reduce your monthly phone bill. If you are on a contract, before renewing, consider changing to a prepaid plan. Use your existing phone as long as you possibly can, or buy a refurbished/used one. You do not need a $1000+ cell phone; indeed, I still use my five-year-old iPhone 6.

Koodo is Telus’s discount brand (similar to Rogers/Fido). It offers the same coverage as the Telus network but with different plan options. When I was looking in late 2016, the most significant savings were in prepaid plans, where a monthly base-plan (free of any time commitment or contract) could be coupled with à la carte data and minute booster add-ons. Such booster add-ons do not expire so long as the monthly base plan is maintained, so a minute or data booster add-on can be purchased and used over many months until it runs out.

In October 2016, I changed my postpaid Koodo monthly plan to a prepaid plan. My base plan of $15/month offers unlimited MMS messaging. Koodo has been selling data at 1 GB for $30 for the last three years (with occasional two-for-one promotions). (Other providers likely offer similar rates; only ensure that their geographical coverage is adequate for your needs.) As I had to purchase both data and minute booster add-ons in this first month, the bill came to $70.75.

Then the savings began. Each subsequent month, I paid only $15.75/month to maintain my base plan. The first 1 GB data booster purchased lasted five months (more on this in the next section), and the 500 minutes lasted about nine months (use FaceTime audio or another free voice-messaging service to minimize actual minute usage).

Enabling automatic top-ups on your credit card (which is a good idea anyway so that your booster add-ons don’t expire if you forget to pay your monthly base plan) gives a 10% discount on your monthly base plan, which adds a $1.50 credit (10% of $15) to your account each month.

Three years later, my average monthly phone bill is $22.43. The following table shows the breakdown, including when minute and data booster add-ons were purchased:

Koodo prepaid plan cost over 37 months. Yes, I made a spreadsheet. All amounts $CAD.
Koodo prepaid plan cost over 37 months. Yes, I made a spreadsheet. All amounts $CAD.

In May 2019, Koodo updated prepaid base plans to include 250 MB of data/month. Given my ability to spread 1 GB of data over five months (~200 MB/month), this effectively eliminated my need to purchase data booster add-ons ever again.

Furthermore, in August 2019, Koodo changed automatic monthly top-ups to charge only the amount owed, not the full fixed-plan monthly cost of $15. As such, my August phone bill came to $7.88 thanks to the accumulation of the $1.50 credits of the automatic top-ups. Under eight dollars!

As time goes on, my monthly phone bill will asymptotically approach $14.18/month (assuming no increases in the minimum base-plan price). There is zero reluctance on my part to pay such a nominal fee each billing period.

So, how about data? Data is the most significant contributor to phone-plan costs. Thus, minimizing data usage is the key to a lower phone bill. Chances are, you likely use much more data than you need and are paying far too much for it.

But I Need Lots of Data!

No, you don’t.

In my experience, the most egregious offenders of mobile data use are music- and video-streaming apps, navigation apps (Google Maps, Apple Maps, etc.), social networking apps, and messaging apps (think iMessage attachments). Monitor your data usage on iOS in Settings > Cellular and manually disable cellular data for apps likely to accidentally chew through it (my current list of data-blocked apps includes the App Store, Books, Instagram, Music, Podcasts, and Speedtest). App Store updates should undoubtedly be limited to WiFi. With a bit of planning, you can likely chop your data usage to a fraction of its current amount.

First, and this should be obvious, take advantage of free WiFi. At home or school/work, you can likely get WiFi access. Prefer this over burning through your data. Dodgy WiFi? A VPN is probably cheaper than mobile data.

Second, take advantage of offline downloads in streaming apps. I have been subscribing to Apple Music for a few years now for its offline-download capability (other music- and video-streaming services offer similar offline modes). When I hear a good song while listening to Apple Music radio over WiFi, I add it to my single, gigantic “Get Amped!” playlist (à la KISS principle). It’s now long enough that individual songs play so infrequently that the overall playlist doesn’t feel repetitive. “Get Amped!” is great for workouts and also highway driving in the mountains, where reception is spotty or nonexistent. I also download podcasts ahead of time and have listened to dozens in remote backcountry camping spots.

Third, in what is the single most effective way of curtailing your data consumption, strive to use your phone less. There may be a positive benefit to your wallet, if not your life. With my prepaid-plan setup, more data usage translates directly into more dollars spent. Cognizant of this, my phone is picked up less and less while out of the house (about 70–80 total minutes per day). Being decidedly less attached to my phone is much more liberating than any high-capacity data plan. Notice the contrast to the mentality of I’m paying for X GB of data a month and must, therefore, use all of it. My old, slow phone also likely discourages its use.

Here are a few more ideas you can try to minimize your data consumption and phone use:

  • Disable push email notifications on your phone. Try it for a week, dealing with emails on your computer instead.
  • For apps with a high volume of notifications, enable “Deliver Quietly: These notifications appear in the Notification Center, but don’t show up on the Lock screen, play sounds, or show a banner or badge icon.” This way, each incoming notification won’t steal your attention and disrupt you from your current task.
  • Start map navigation somewhere with WiFi. Most of your route should then be cached, minimizing over-the-air data use en route.
  • If you have a device running iOS13, enable Low Data Mode. If your device does not support iOS13 (like my now-ancient iPhone 6), disable Background App Refresh (Settings > General > Background App Refresh).
  • Videos look crappy on small screens (phones and tablets), so add videos you find mobile browsing to either Safari’s Read Later list or YouTube’s Watch Later playlist. Then watch the videos later on a proper computer.
  • Limit social media use to WiFi. You do not need to be mindlessly scrolling through news feeds while outside your home. I deleted Facebook (except Messenger) from my phone years ago, never got into Twitter, and check Instagram maybe three or four times a month (only over WiFi). Instead, try to be more present with your current company and the environment surrounding you. It stands out when you can carry a conversation instead of whipping out your phone every two minutes.

That we use our phones and other electronic devices too much is assuredly a prevalent issue in our society today, one worthy of an equally lengthy essay or even a book. Let’s take a brief (I promise) step back from phones and examine the bigger picture: technology, while a wonderful tool, can have harmful effects when incorrectly used. Its ability to distract is quite unparalleled.

Even before cell phones, the dangers of constant distraction were illuminated. Neil Postman, in the oft-cited foreword to his prescient 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, warned about the pitfalls of such pleasure-inducing distractions:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Without diving any farther down this rabbit hole, heed this essay as a reminder to soberly examine the hold of digital technology on your life. Spending excessive hours glued to your phone each day can become a form of enslavement.

A movement of “digital decluttering” is gaining traction lately. Cal Newport, in his 2019 bestseller Digital Minimalism, argues that taking small steps toward limiting technology’s influence in your life can lead to a healthier relationship with it.

As I stated earlier, it is wonderfully liberating to be less attached to my phone. Though it may involve some effort to adopt such an attitude, it is surely worth attempting. To take it even further, I would argue that regularly spending time in wild places without cellular reception (such as the backcountry) is one of the best possible things to do with your time.

Conclusion

An effective way to minimize your cell-phone bill in Canada (and anywhere, really) is by reducing your data consumption. Minimize your data use both in small ways, such as employing data-conservation techniques; and in substantial ways, such as reframing your relationship to technology by using your phone less. Couple these notions with a prepaid plan and you’ll be able to get your monthly phone bill as low as reasonably practicable while perhaps also enjoying some newfound liberty from your device.

UPDATE March 9, 2021: I finally upgraded my ancient iPhone 6—with a cracked screen held together by superglue—to a used, unlocked iPhone XR in December 2019. Hopefully, this one will last five years as well. The plan stayed the same, so my monthly bill has dropped to $22.11/month, averaged over the last 4.5 years. Let the savings continue!

UPDATE August 22, 2021: I built an automated scraper (Github repo) to check for promotions on Koodo’s web page and email me the results. Also, my monthly average phone bill is now $21.44.

References

  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 2006.