Many people eagerly spend $200 or more every year for the privilege of owning the latest and greatest smartphone. Then they shell out another $100 a month or so to ensure they can use that phone to talk, text and tap into the Internet as often as they like.
Certainly that buys you a lot of convenience. Smartphones and the service plans that support them give you constant, almost instant access to everyone who is important. The multitude of net-connected apps provide a wealth of constantly updated information about almost every conceivable topic.
But here's a little secret that the cell phone companies don't really like to talk about. You can spend a lot less and still remain well-connected. What's more, you won't be locked into one of those draconian two-year contracts the cell phone providers always insist you buy if you want the newest and most advanced smartphone.
How much you save depends on how many of the high-end bells and whistles you are willing to sacrifice. But most people could easily save 50 percent without giving up too much.
The most direct route to those savings is through a company best known for selling low-budget cell phones and providing service on a pay-as-you-go basis - Tracfone. Oh, I know. Some of you are already rolling you eyes. But, hear me out.
Tracfone offers a service through Walmart called Straight Talk that provides unlimited voice, text and Internet for a flat $45 a month. That's the total price. No extra fees. No hidden costs. What's more, Tracfone contracts with many of the big cell phone companies for cell service so you have pretty much nationwide coverage. And there is no contract. Buy service only when you need it. Stop whenever you want.
So what's the catch? Well, if there is one, it's that you will NOT be able to use the most advanced smartphones with this plan. That means no iPhone, of any variety. No Galaxy Nexus. No Razr - at least not yet. If bragging rights associated with owning such phones are important to you, you can stop reading right now. No savings for you.
For everyone else, be aware that you can buy a decent, although not state-of-the-art, Android smartphone with a large touch screen and all the basic functionality of the phones sold by the big boys.
Your choices are far less than you would get with one of the big companies. But the current top-of-the-line is a LG Optimus Q for $180. It features a full 3.2-inch touch screen with slide out keyboard and runs Android 2.3, which is what is found in most Android smartphones. You can check out the entire lineup and get more details on the program at www.straighttalk.com.
If you are not a heavy user, Straight Talk can cost even less - $30 a month. That plan caps data usage at 30MB a month and limits you to 1,000 messages. (Be aware the more advanced phones require you to buy the $45 a month plan.) And if you can get by with just basic cell phone service (no smartphone or advanced Internet access), it's hard to beat Tracfone's regular pay-as-you-go products. You can buy a year of service, which includes 400 minutes for $100, less than $10 a month. The phones generally cost $30 or less.
Another low cost smartphone option to consider, if you don't travel a lot, is Metro PCS. Like Tracfone, it's a pay-as-you-go service with no contracts. Unlike Tracfone, extra charges may apply outside your "home" area or there may be no service at all. But MetroPCS offers more advanced smartphones as well as the faster 4G data service in some areas. The most advanced model available now is the 4G Samsung Galaxy Attain, which goes for $199. The monthly cost for service with Internet access range from $50 to $60, still far less that what the big cell phone companies charge. Get more information at www.MetroPCS.com.
If you lust for smartphone features but cannot stomach the monthly fees to support it, consider an iPod Touch (AKA, the iPhone without the phone) or a similar competitor like the Samsung Galaxy Player. All of these products provide access to the huge universe of apps most people use on cellphones. The big difference is they are Wi-Fi only, so you can only use them at home (if you have wireless Internet) or at public places that provide free Wi-Fi.
The cheapest iPod Touch is about $200 while the similar Galaxy player is about $180. The Touch allows you to use most apps designed for the iPhone while the Galaxy taps into the Android Marketplace used by all Android smartphones.
There are lots of options out there. Do a little research and pick the one that works best for you.
Tony Briggs has been a technology columnist in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.