With all the new changes to T-Mobile and AT&T’s plans I can’t really tell how much the plans really cost and whether it’s worth switching or if I should just stick to the two-year subsidy. Can you break down the math for me?
Yes! Math is certainly something we can do. Unfortunately, carrier plans can be more confusing than communicating with the opposite sex. T-Mobile’s recent marketing bender has been an attempt to fix this by separating service costs from hardware pricing. The end result is that AT&T is starting to follow suit (and Verizon may be next).
For those just joining us, here are the basics of how the new plans work. On AT&T, the Next plan allows you to buy your phone outright over the course of 20 months. Your monthly payment will be the full price of the phone divided by 20 (which is roughly how T-Mobile’s plans work already). After 12 months, though, you can trade in your phone (and its payments) for a new device.
On T-Mobile it works a little differently. You can pay $ 10/month to join Jump which will allow you to trade in your phone for a new device twice per year. That $ 10/month also includes handset insurance, though, so you get more for your money than just the privilege of upgrading.
It’s not clear, though, whether these upgrade plans are really worth it. Here are the major downsides that apply across the board to both AT&T and T-Mobile:
- You will pay more. Whether through a payment plan or more for your device, you will pay more money over both the short and the long-term.
- You won’t get to keep any device you don’t finish paying off. Both carriers allow you to trade in devices, but none allow you to trade up to a new phone and keep the old one unless you pay the old one off entirely.
- You can’t leave the carrier if you owe anything on your phone. This has been a source of contention since T-Mobile said it ditched contracts, but the gist is that you are free to leave the carrier any time under these plans, provided that you don’t owe it any money for your handsets.
Now, most of this is reasonable. After all, if you walk into a store and ask them to give you a $ 600 phone without paying for it, you shouldn’t expect there to be no conditions. And if you want to do that once or twice a year, you should expect it to cost more. Being a frequent upgrader will naturally cost more money than only buying one phone every two years. That’s just math.
AT&T Next Is a Huge Rip Off
Some of these payment plans are more beneficial than others. Let’s start with AT&T. The company still offers a two-year subsidy plan, which means that for $ 90/month you get service and one handset. This is alright for contract customers. However, you’ll still be paying that $ 90/month for service under the new AT&T Next plans on top of paying for your handset separately. In just about every scenario, this is a financially bad decision.
Under AT&T Next, you can upgrade once every twelve months. When you do this, you trade in your old phone (which means you can’t sell it), and you begin payments on a new phone. Now, if you were to continue doing this forever, you would never actually pay off your phone and instead keep trading it in. Now, that’s how some people operate anyway, except on a two-year schedule, but let’s take a look at just how much money it will cost you to become a frequent upgrader.
For purposes of comparison, we took a look at what it would cost to buy a Galaxy S4 on AT&T (and assumed comparable prices for upgrades one year later). Here are the four scenarios we took a look at:
- A regular 2-year contract.
- AT&T Next service for 2 years with no upgrade.
- AT&T Next service for 2 years with one upgrade.
- AT&T Next service for 2 years with one upgrade plus paying off the rest of the phone (so you can leave AT&T).
Here is what those four scenarios would cost:
Right off the bat, you can see that AT&T Next costs you a ton of money. You save $ 440 with the two year contract over a comparable Next plan, but for some people it may be worth it to be able to switch carriers (though it’s pushing it). AT&T Next payments are on a 20 month schedule so even if you only pay the minimum amount due on your handset, you could still leave the carrier 4 months earlier.
If you upgrade at all, though, things get a lot worse. Upgrade at the 12 month mark and your total two year price goes up to $ 568 on top of the normal 2-year contract plan. However, at the end of those two years, you’re still not able to leave and you don’t own your phone yet. Your phone may be only one year old instead of two, but for this much money you’d be better off just buying your phone outright.
If you decide after those two years that you want to leave AT&T, you’re entering a world of pain. As the third card points out, your total 2-year cost with one upgrade under Next is $ 2928. But you still owe $ 256 on that phone. If, at that point, you decide to just pay it off and go to another carrier, your total cost is now $ 3184. That is a full $ 824 more than just getting a two-year contract.
Put that another way: for that $ 824 difference, you could buy another phone at the 12 month mark and get to keep both handsets at the end of your contract. You’re actually paying AT&T money to take a phone from you. A lot of money. Money you’re not going to get back by selling your one-year-old phone. Also, if you want to add insurance to your handsets (which is bundled with T-Mobile’s JUMP plans), it’s another $ 168 on top of all of these total prices.
There is one situation where AT&T’s Next plans aren’t just generally bad for consumers: if you absolutely do not want to sign a contract, AT&T Next functions like an interest-free credit card. However, it’s worth pointing out that AT&T’s ETF is $ 325 (minus $ 10/completed month of service). Depending on how much your phone costs, it may actually be cheaper to pay the ETF to break contract anyway. The cost here is close (and variable) enough that it can be subjective—maybe it’s worth a hundred bucks to you to never have to sign a contract—but in general the subsidized 2-year contract is just universally cheaper than AT&T Next. To the point where Next seems outright abusive under many circumstances.
T-Mobile’s Jump Plans Are Better, But Frequent Upgrades Are Still Costly
The key difference between T-Mobile and AT&T is that T-Mobile doesn’t offer the subsidized option. Whether you’re a new customer or an existing one, frequent upgrader or buy a phone once every three years, you’ll pay the same price for service and the same price for hardware as everyone else. This is all covered under T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” umbrella.
Jump is a little different. For $ 10/month, you can sign up for Jump and get up to two upgrades per year. All money owed on the device you have will be wiped away and you start fresh with the sticker price of a new phone. Unlike AT&T, you’ll still have to make a down payment. For example, the Galaxy S4 we used in the example above currently costs $ 150 up front and $ 20/month.
Again using the Galaxy S4 as an example (and the same assumption about comparable prices), here are four scenarios on T-Mobile we’ll look at:
- Regular 2-year plan with no upgrades.
- Jump plan over two years with one upgrade after 12 months.
- Jump plan over two years with three upgrades (one ever 6 months.)
- Jump plan over two years with three upgrades, plus buying out the final phone.
Here’s what those scenarios would look like:
If you take full use of the Jump plan, you’ll end up paying about as much as you would if you took full advantage of AT&T Next. The difference is that you’d be able to use four phones over a two year time period, and the one you finally end up paying off would be fairly recent.
For comparison, if you wanted to use the latest and greatest handset every six months and had to buy them outright—which T-Mobile already facilitates without the Jump plan as long as you pay off your phones—it would cost around $ 3810 (cost of first card + $ 630 x 3). You’d get to keep all of those phones, but chances are you won’t end up selling them all for even remotely what you paid for them.
For the frequent upgrader, T-Mobile’s Jump plan can be attractive under certain circumstances. It’s not cheaper, mind you. In fact, it’s incredibly expensive. However, that’s the cost of frequently upgrading your $ 600-700 phone. If you upgrade every six months (without buying off your handset at the end), you’ll pay $ 840 more than you would if you just stuck with the same phone for two years. However, it can save you some money versus buying all your phones outright.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that T-Mobile’s Jump plan includes device insurance (which is normally $ 8/month). That means if one of those handsets breaks, you’re covered as well. On AT&T, that coverage costs extra. If you’re already planning on buying handset protection, it’s a no-brainer to go with the Jump plan just in case (over the course of two years, it will cost you a whopping $ 48 extra). Just remember that the more handsets you go through, the more money you’ll spend no matter what.
As for AT&T, it’s difficult to find any defensible position for getting a Next plan. If you absolutely refuse to get a contract, Next is okay as a zero-interest financing plan. Just don’t ever get an upgrade with it. Buy your phone separately instead.
So, Is It Worth It?
The short version is: for AT&T, absolutely not. For T-Mobile, if you want to play with the latest and greatest every six months, it might be. It’s going to cost you, but you knew that going in. Just take a close look at which phones you’re getting and how much. This look examined the Galaxy S4 and comparably priced phones later on, but handset costs can vary dramatically.