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Have you ever tried to figure out how to save money on your family’s cell phone bill? It can be a complicated process—looking at voice minutes, texts, data, and phone costs across a bunch of different providers is a pain.
And with mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), the options get even more complicated.
Is your head spinning yet? We’re here to help. We’ve also included a summary spreadsheet below, which you may copy or print for your convenience.
MVNOs: The Basics
If you’re not familiar with MVNOs, the concept is pretty simple: they partner with a larger mobile provider to use their network, but they offer their own service and payment plans. Essentially what this means for you is that you pay less to access the same network. However, major networks will prioritize their own traffic over yours, meaning you could experience some slowing of connection speeds and difficulty accessing the network during peak times.
So there’s a tradeoff; less consistent access for a much smaller bill. (Also, there are no contracts, which is a bonus.) Depending on how you use your phone, the tradeoff may or may not be worth it. Not sure if it’s for you? Check out these 10 reasons you should switch to an MVNO and see if it sounds appealing.
Obviously, a lot of factors go into choosing a cell phone plan. How many people are you looking to get connected? Do you have phones already, or do you need new ones? How much data do you tend to use? Do you talk on the phone a lot? Do you make international calls? The answers to these questions will determine which plans are best for you.
For this article, we’ll be comparing prices for a family of four who use a reasonable amount of voice and text, and need between 1GB and 3GB of data per month. Because it’s so easy to keep your phone on Wi-Fi most of the time, 1GB will likely be sufficient. But everyone’s different, so we’ll look at plans with differing amounts of data.
Family Plan Pricing
Family plans from the major providers give you a lot of perks: they usually come with unlimited talk and text, a lot of data, and the ability to add as many lines as you want. But they can be restrictive. Here are four family plans from major providers that should give you a good idea of how much it will cost to get your family set up.
A T-Mobile family plan with four lines of unlimited text, talk, and data will run you $100. However, it’s important to note that you’ll only get 1 GB of 4G LTE connectivity per phone. After you’ve used up your gigabyte, you’ll be connected to a slower 2G network. You can also add 2GB of LTE data for $10 extra per line, 4GB for $20 extra per line, or unlimited data for $30 extra per line.
Also, remember that you’ll pay more if you want a new phone (though you should really always buy a phone from somewhere other than your cell provider).
AT&T family plans are a bit more complicated. For $50 per month, you’ll get unlimited text and talk (in the US) along with 5GB of mobile data to share. You’ll need to pay an access fee for each line of $25 per month if you use AT&T Next or bring your own phone. So for four people, that’s $150, and each person gets about 1.25GB of data.
If you decide to go up to the $100 15GB plan, where you’ll average 3.75GB per person, you’ll only pay a $15-per-line access fee, bringing the total up to $160, which is tough to beat for this amount of data.
If you go with a Verizon family plan, you’ll also need to run some calculations with line fees. A plan with unlimited talk and text and 6GB of mobile data (1.5 GB per person) will cost $60 per month, and you’ll need to pay $20 per line. That means a four-person family should expect to pay $140 per month.
Sprint’s family plan aims to be very simple; for $100 per month, you get unlimited talk and text and 10 GB of mobile data, significantly more than the other major providers (though you will have your connection slowed to 2G speeds after you use 1 GB on a particular device). You’ll also need to buy phones with this plan, which means you’ll be paying more per month, though the amount depends on which phones your family decides to spring for.
As you can see, figuring out exactly how much a family plan will cost you can be complicated.
MVNO “Family” Plans
Because MVNOs don’t generally offer family plans, we’ll be building four-person plans using four identical service plans from each provider to see how much it would cost. One of the big bonuses of using an MVNO is that each person can choose a plan that’s best for them — if someone uses a lot of voice or data, you can get that on your plan without adding it to everyone’s.
Black Wireless, which uses the AT&T network, offers a $50 plan that includes unlimited text and talk (including calling and texting to many other countries) and 2 GB of data. For four people, that would be $200 per month.
If you want to be on the T-Mobile network, Boost Mobile is a good way to go. After signing up for automatic monthly payments, you’ll get unlimited talk and text alongside 2 GB of data for $30 per line, giving you a pretty solid deal at $120 per month. Boost also gives you growing data; after every three on-time payments you make, you get another 500 MB, up to a total of 5 GB of mobile data after 18 payments.
Don’t talk much on your phones? The ChitChat Mobile plans might be a better fit for you; with 250 minutes of talk, unlimited text, and 3 GB of data, their $40 plan nets you a good amount of connectivity for $160 per month (if you can stand to spend time on their terrible website, that is). ChitChat uses the Sprint network.
Offering service on both the Sprint and AT&T network, Family Talk Wireless offers a $35 plan that includes unlimited talk and text with 1 GB of data. If you don’t use much mobile data, paying $140 for this plan might be a better fit for your family. Though you’ll have to deal with the exact same terrible website that ChitChat uses.
H2O Wireless, which uses the AT&T network, is one of the few MVNOs to offer unlimited mobile data (though you’ll get slowed down significantly after a certain amount, depending on your plan). At $40 per person ($160 for the month), you’ll get unlimited talk, text, and data, and you won’t get slowed down until you’ve used a full 1 GB. You can also talk to people in over 50 countries without paying any extra fees.
As with family plans, it’s clear that whichever plan you decide to go with depends very much on your needs. The biggest advantage of using individual plans from MVNOs is that you can choose a plan for each member of your family that best fits their usage patterns. You could even use plans from different providers, if you’re willing to deal with multiple bills each month.
Family Plans vs. MVNOs: The Verdict
It’s a tough call to decide between these two. The family plans we looked at came in at $100, $150, $140, and $100. The MVNO calculations resulted in $200, $120, $160, $140, and $160. When it comes to price, the family plans win the battle, especially if you’re able to get the same prices without buying a phone from the provider.
However, the flexibility offered by MVNOs is tough to pass up, especially when some of the plans are as cheap — or very close to as cheap — as those from the major providers. If the members of your family vary widely in how they use their phones, and you can choose plans that best fit them, you could potentially save a lot of money over time (especially if you buy your own phones).
Then again, family plans are simple, easy to set up, and easy to maintain. This can be worth a lot when you’re already trying to keep track of all sorts of things for your families. I’m surprising myself quite a bit by saying this, but for the majority of people, a family plan will likely be better. The convenience, competitive pricing, and major-provider prioritization are likely worth more than the $20 or $30 you’ll save with MVNO plans.
How do you keep your family connected? Do you use a family plan from a major provider? Or do you use individual plans from an MVNO? How do you like it? Share your thoughts below!