What’s the Best Cell Phone Plan For Senior Citizens?

As appearing on NerdWallet.com, published 10/15/12

Image from original article, via Shutterstock

Each year, cellphone service plans seem to get bigger, better, and—most importantly—more expensive, all in order to accommodate new technological features that serve to further blur the line between phone and computer.

The trend is not for everyone. Over 90% of Americans use a cellphone, and a small but growing share of that market is made up of grandparents, great aunts, and independent seniors across the country who are looking to avoid the hassle, extra money, and confusion of bloated plans.

Service providers have taken notice. Today, the market is flooded with plans targeted specifically at seniors who don’t want to watch YouTube videos on demand, but want to be able to stay connected and in touch. With so many different options which one should you choose? We breakdown some of the major cell phone plans for seniors to help you find the best deal.

Most of the major carriers have “senior plans” that cater to cell phone users in their golden years. They’re structured similarly to regular plans, but generally have fewer minutes and fewer frills—great for letting you stay connected to friends and family at a cost lower than their full service plans. The contracts last a standard two years, and there isn’t much variation; almost all of the plans will have you paying a one-time $35 activation fee and about $30 per month for around 700 minutes.

Outside of the four major carriers, there are a number of smaller companies that cater specifically to seniors and provide a little more flexibility. Carriers such as Tracfone or Consumer Cellular start their plans as low as $10 per month—ideal if your primary concern is to have a phone for cases of emergency. Many of these companies, such as GreatCall also produce simple, easy to use phones to accompany their plans.

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The nimbleness and flexibility of the smaller plans often translates into the biggest savings. Companies like Consumer Cellular and GreatCall not only provide competitive rates, but also have phones ideal for seniors with larger buttons, and clearer contrast on displays. All of the smaller companies listed in our table are what is known as a mobile virtual network operators—they use the networks of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint, ensuring the same coverage and connectivity as the big four.

Cheaper plans and equal coverage? It seems like a no-brainer, so why isn’t everyone signing on with these smaller companies? The major carriers continue to thrive, luring people in with subsidized prices on phones in order to get you to sign a more expensive contract. You may pay less upfront for a phone, but you end up overspending down the line.

How can you avoid it? When it comes to picking specific plans, have a clear sense of what your expected phone usage will be, and what add-ons are necessary and worth paying for and which you can forgo. Recent data from Nielsen found that people over 65 placed or received, on average, 99 calls per month, underscoring the advantage of no-contract plans. 99 3-minute calls add up to just less than 300 minutes per month. If you lock in to a two year contract with a major carrier, that means you’re paying for lots of minutes you may never use. No-contract providers like TracFone and PureTalk, meanwhile, let you purchase minutes as you need them.

While the plans highlighted in this article were all for individuals, it’s worth seeing if you can add extra phone lines to an existing family plan, an option that may be cheaper than purchasing a separate plan outright.

Finally, if you are on Medicaid, Food Stamps/SNAP, Social Security Income (SSI), or other government programs you may qualify for subsidized plans from a carrier like Assurance Wireless. If your application is accepted, you’ll receive a free phone along with 250 free voice minutes and 250 free texts per month.

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Christopher DesBarres, co-owner of Help Unlimited, a firm that helps senior citizens manage their day-to-day personal finances, outlined these considerations for seniors picking phone plans:

First, consider any physical limitations—poor eyesight, deteriorating motor skills, etc.—that will impact how they use a cell phone. For example, if a senior has shaky hands because of palsy or Parkinson’s, it makes little sense to go with a phone that is heavily reliant on touchscreens. Second, consider how they use the cell phone. Chances are that the senior is not all too interested in texting, checking email, etc. The fewer things that the senior wants to do, the simpler the cell phone and corresponding cell phone plan should be. Third, how much they use the cell phone and how often. Is the cell phone the primary phone in the house? Is it only used to make infrequent long-distance phone calls? Does it stay in the car for emergency use only?

We most often recommend Jitterbug or Tracfone. We really like the ease of use that comes with Jitterbug phones, but Tracfone offers more competitive pricing. The Jitterbug is perfect for a senior who needs big, easy to read buttons and screens and will be using the phone regularly (several times a week). Tracfone is perfect for seniors who don’t mind a slightly smaller screen and buttons, but who use their phone more infrequently.” 

Ritch Blasi, president of MediaRitch and formerly of AT&T, had this advice:

“Seniors is a broad category. Some companies that offer discounts start at 50, others at 65. And the needs for that age group, and above, will vary…especially with their devices. For those at the top end of the age range, offers with phones like Jitterbug are best since they are predominately voice focused. As you get lower in the age bracket, the devices can vary and the use changes. Like me, many in their fifties use data services on their phones for email, sending photos between family, or even finding area restaurants and such. For these folks, a combined plan that offers both voice calling (depending on how much they use their phones – could be unlimited or a fixed bucket) and one of the smaller data packages could save them money.”

Tony Wenzel, SVP of sales at Stratacache, had this analysis for seniors who are looking at data plans for the cellphones:

“Acquiring an unlimited data plan may be the single most important cost saving decision one can make. Almost all calls now can be made with Skype, iChat, or dozens of other applications, so “minutes” are meaningless. There is no reason to even have a minutes plan any longer. One could conceivably have a $30 unlimited data-only plan and call anywhere in the world and use the Internet anywhere in the US for that single monthly cost.  […] If senior citizens are aware of the data trend, they can make the smart decision to purchase fixed-cost plans that eliminate punitive variable costs.”


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