I used to pay $81 a month for my cell phone service. Now, I pay $10.65 a month.
It’s rare that there’s one weird trick to saving money. Usually, saving entails hard work and sacrifice.
Today, I bring you an exception. Today, I bring you a way to save money every month that’s easy and painless. Today, I introduce you to the world of MVNOs. I know, you’ve been thinking about your Moonbeam Vector Newt Options for years now. Just wondering when I’d finally let you in on my secret extraterrestrial newt colony.
Today’s your lucky day. It’s even luckier because MVNO actually stands for mobile virtual network operator.
What’s An MVNO?
An MVNO is a wireless service reseller. MVNOs resell brand name wireless services (such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc) at dirt cheap rates. This is not a hoax. Nor is it a gimmick, which is what I assumed before I tried it myself. Ever the willing guinea pigs for you folks, Mr. Frugalwoods and I went on an odyssey of testing out different MVNO providers and I’m here to tell you that they work. They legit work and they legit cost PENNIES compared to traditional cell service providers.
According to Wikipedia, an MVNO is:
…a wireless communications services provider that does not own the wireless network infrastructure over which it provides services to its customers. An MVNO enters into a business agreement with a mobile network operator to obtain bulk access to network services at wholesale rates, then sets retail prices independently.
For example: the MVNO I use, Ting, contracts with T-mobile to resell excess T-mobile capacity. This means I get EXACTLY THE SAME service as I would if I were paying full price for T-mobile. However, I get this service for $10 a month because Ting bought it at a cheap, wholesale rate and then resells it to me. T-mobile wants to do this because it means they’re making some money from their excess capacity (as opposed to no money) and Ting wants to do this because they’re making money reselling the excess T-mobile service to me. I want to do this because it means I pay A LOT LESS every month for my cell phone service. So why doesn’t everyone in America use an MVNO? Good question.
Note to you: this post contains affiliate links for MVNOs. I don’t promote stuff that I don’t personally use, which is why it took me so long to write this post (I mean, I’ve only been writing Frugalwoods for five years, so, not THAT long… ). Before writing about MVNOs, I had to first use them myself. I’m not going to write “affiliate link” after every affiliate link because that’s annoying to read. When in doubt, assume it’s an affiliate link.
Why This Is Worth Your Time To Do
Reducing recurring expenses = major savings. By switching to an MVNO, you can make ONE change and permanently save money every single month. Think about me. I was paying $81 per month plus my husband’s phone at another $81 per month, which cost us $1,944 per year.
By switching to Ting, we now pay $21.30 per month, which is $255.60 per year. That means we save $1,688.40 PER YEAR. Just by switching our cell phone service provider.
We didn’t even have to change our phone numbers or our phones–just our service provider! So even if it feels a little intimidating to embark on the MVNO journey, the savings are so substantial that it’s worth putting in the time to switch to an MVNO. You will rake in the savings month after month, year after year.
Two MVNO Companies You Might Consider: Ting and Mint
There are tons of MVNOs out there. Helpfully, Wikipedia compiled this list. I compiled an even shorter list to make this even easier. Most MVNOs (including the two I discuss) offer:
- No contracts because they’re pay as you go!
- The ability to bring your own phone (and your own phone number)
- Different data limit options at different price points
- Dirt cheap monthly bills
- Reliable service
1) Ting (resells Sprint and T-Mobile service)
Ting is the company I use and so far, I’m thrilled with it. I get better coverage than I did before and I pay less than ever. Back in the day, I used AT&T. From there, I switched to Boom Mobile (an MVNO that resells Verizon). Initially, Boom worked well for us because we had a Verizon tower near us. However, our town recently got a T-Mobile tower and so I made the switch from Boom to Ting and am super happy with them.
I am thrilled with Ting because:
- Ting is cheaper than Boom. I was paying $19.99 per phone with Boom and now pay $21.30 per month for BOTH my cell phone and Mr. Frugalwoods’ cell phone (as a sidenote, we both have Apple iPhones).
- I’ll do some math for you: that’s $10.65 per person per month for cell phone service.
- They don’t do contracts. There are no cancellation fees. You only pay for what you use.
- They have an easy-to-use, straightforward website
- They have excellent customer service (we’ve used it and they’re great)
- They offer wifi calling and texting, so if you don’t have great service in your house (which is the case for us), you can use wifi for texting and calling, which is awesome.
- You can estimate how much your monthly bill will be on their website, but…
- You only pay for what you use in a month. If you use more, you pay more. If you use less, you pay less. You’re not locked into paying for data/texts/minutes you didn’t use and you won’t be charged exorbitant fees if you use a bunch one month.
- If you’re worried about using too much data, you can set caps for yourself through Ting’s website. These’ll provide you with alerts when you’re reaching your self-imposed cap (although there’s no penalty or fee from Ting if you exceed that cap).
- It’s even cheaper per month if you add a line to your service. Kind of like a family plan! This is what Mr. FW and I do, which is why we each pay $10 a month.
- You can call internationally to 60 countries at no extra fee.
- Ting has been around for awhile as an MVNO and has a great reputation.
2) Mint (resells T-Mobile service)
I haven’t personally used Mint, but from what I’ve read, it can be a great option if you’re a heavy data user. Also, I love Mint’s website because their mascot is a fox. Ok actually I love it because they offer several comparison tools to help you figure out if Mint is right for you. But also the fox is cute.
On Mint’s site you can:
- Enter your ZIP code to see if Mint offers coverage in your area.
- Enter the brand and model of your phone to see if it’s compatible with Mint’s service (they encourage BYOP–bring your own phone).
- Select from a variety of plans with different levels of data and different price points. The cheapest plan is $15 per month. Yep. $15 per month.
- If you use a lot of data, Mint might be a better choice than Ting (we’ll discuss data usage more in a moment).
Why No AT&T or Verizon?
There are some MVNOs that resell AT&T and Verizon service, but they’re not as well regarded and their plans are not as cheap as the above options. The reason: AT&T and Verizon are the behemoths of the industry and have less profit incentive to resell unsold capacity on their cell towers.
However, if you have AT&T or Verizon, it’s totally possible that T-Mobile or Sprint would also work just fine for you. It’s easy to assume that our current cell provider is the only one that covers our area, but that’s usually not the case (except for those of us who live ultra-rurally and have like one cell tower within a 100-mile radius… speaking from experience here).
Pro tip: A great way to find an MVNO that works well in your area is to ask your most tech-minded/frugal-minded local friend or neighbor. Chances are, they’ve already figured it out and will be thrilled to help you figure it out too.
If you don’t live ultra-rurally, you likely have all manner of cell towers in your region and can change to another service provider without decreasing the quality of your reception and service. Plus, as I’ll outline in a moment, switching between MVNOs (or to an MVNO and then back to your original carrier) is easy to do because you’re not under contract with an MVNO. Use it for a month and, if you hate it? Switch back to your original company. You’ll probably get a better deal in the process since you’ll be a new or returning customer!
What’s the Catch, Mrs. Frugalwoods?
I’m so glad you asked. There’s no catch with MVNOs, but there are different parameters than with traditional cell phone service providers. These parameters vary by MVNO–they are different companies after all–but the basic guidelines are as follows:
1) You need to own your own phone.
A lot of folks finance their cell phones through their wireless service provider, which I consider a bad idea for a number of reasons. Most MVNOs do not allow you to finance a phone–you need to own it outright. Some MVNOs sell their own phones, but most allow you to BYOD (bring your own device). My husband and I own iPhones (which we paid for in full through the online Apple store), and used them with Boom and now Ting without a hitch. With most MVNOs, you can use whatever phone you currently have (iPhone, Android, etc).
2) You need to be out of contract with your current cell phone service provider.
You’ll need to terminate your contract (or be out of contract) with your current provider (unless you’re already with an MVNO and just want to switch to another MVNO).
In some instances, paying the penalty for prematurely terminating your contract will be a good financial decision in the long run because MVNO service is so darn cheap. You should run the numbers on what the penalty is for terminating your contract versus how much you’d save every month if you were using an MVNO.
3) You need to know your data needs.
This is a big one. MVNOs typically don’t offer plans with tons of data. This isn’t a problem if you usually use wifi on your phone. This COULD be a problem if you use TONS of cellular data every month. If you use TONS of cellular data every month, it’s worth determining if you could instead connect to wifi (at home, at work, at the coffee shop) and utilize wifi instead of cellular data. The potential monthly savings are so profound that I think it’s worthwhile to do an audit of how much cellular data you’re using and how you could potentially reduce your cellular data usage by instead using wifi.
Let’s Talk More About Data
Data can be expensive with an MVNO and, if you use your phone as your primary internet access, an MVNO might not make sense. However, if you can use a wifi network on your phone instead, then you are golden and an MVNO is ideal for you. This is what I do. I connect to my home wifi when I’m home and, when I’m out and about, I connect to the wifi at the library, the doctor’s office, the coffee shop, etc. If there’s no wifi available where I am, then–and only then–I use the cellular network. The key is that I don’t use the cellular network very often.
As an example, I used a meagre 41 megabytes of data last month because most of the time, I use wifi (internet) instead of data (cellular service). If you’re a heavy data user, all hope is not lost because some MVNOs offer plans with higher data caps. These plans are typically more expensive than the dirt cheapest plans, but they’re still vastly less expensive than a traditional carrier.
Mint Mobile, for example, offers plans with unlimited data and they make it super easy to buy more data (via text or through their website) if you need it in a given month.
List Of Objections to MVNOs
Every time I espouse the virtues of MVNOs, eyes start to roll and the objections roll in. But you guys, it’s not hard to do and it’s so cheap and if you don’t like it, you can just switch back!!!! Here are some of the most frequently voiced objections and my responses:
1) What if I don’t like the MVNO service and want to switch back to my traditional carrier?
Go right ahead. Most MVNOs do not require you to sign a contract, so you’re paying on a month-to-month basis for the minutes and data you’ve used (this is what I do with Ting). So, if you switch to a MVNO and find you don’t like it? You can switch right back. As an added bonus, you’ll probably get a better deal with your former carrier since you’ll be a new customer. Wins all around.
2) I want to keep my phone number.
Go right ahead. MVNOs expect you to bring your existing cell phone number. This is standard practice. Given that, every MVNO provides straightforward, step-by-step instructions on how to keep your existing number, which is called “porting your number.” I personally ported my number out of AT&T and onto the MVNO Boom and then from Boom to my current MVNO, Ting. Easy. Peasy. And I still have the same cell phone number I’ve had since I was 17.
3) Ok but really, how hard is it to “port” my number?
Not hard. Here’s the basic rundown of what you do:
- Obtain your “port out pin number” from your existing service provider. Sometimes this is available online, sometimes you have to call them.
- Ask your existing service provider if your number is unencumbered for porting out.
- Sidenote: If you’re on the phone, it’s very likely your existing service provider will put a hard sell on you to stay with their company. And hey, if that’s what you want to do, see if you can negotiate a better contract with them!
- Take that information, along with your account number and go through the porting out process as outlined by your MVNO.
- They’ll ask for your name and address exactly as it appears on your old phone bill, your phone number, your “port out pin” number…. and then, you’re all set. You’re now using your old number on a new MVNO.
- Once you’ve submitted your request, you can call your old company and let them know that your number is able to be released for porting.
- If you’re porting a number from a traditional cell service provider, it should take less than 24 hours for it to port.
- If you’re porting a number between MVNOs, it should take even less time. It took 1.5 hours for Mr. FW and I to switch between MVNOs (from Boom to Ting).
4) What if I want to try several different MVNOs?
Go right ahead. As noted above, it’s super easy to switch around between MVNOs because:
- You’re not under contract
- You own your own phone
- You can port your phone number between MVNOs with ease
Once you are free and clear and untethered by a contract to a traditional phone company, you can toggle around to as many different MVNOs as you want.
5) The coverage will be bad.
Nope. As a matter of fact, the coverage will probably be exactly the same as what you currently have if you select an MVNO that resells your existing service. MVNOs don’t operate their own cell towers. They don’t have their own satellites. All they do is resell the EXACT SAME SERVICE that the traditional companies offer. So, if you currently use T-Mobile and you switch to Ting, for example, you will literally be using the same service because Ting resells T-Mobile.
It’s weird, I know. As a business model it’s sort of hilarious, but it does make sense. T-Mobile has excess coverage that they aren’t using. Instead of declaring that coverage a total loss, they sell it at a discount to Ting and then Ting turns around and re-resells it to you at a steep discount.
6) MVNOs do not have store fronts and I like to walk into a store and talk to people.
OK, this is where you and I differ. However. There’s a way around this and it’s one I highly recommend:
Hire a local tech geek to set up your MVNO for you and pay them to explain the whole thing to you.
Why do this? You’ll get unbiased advice from your tech geek versus the biased advice you’ll get from the person at the AT&T store. The person at the AT&T store is trained to do everything in their power to keep you as an AT&T customer and to up-sell you on phones, service, and accessories at every possible opportunity. Your friendly neighborhood tech geek, on the other hand, is giving you their unvarnished tech advice. They don’t care if you use an MVNO or not–they’re getting paid either way.
MVNOs are the TJ Maxx of Cell Phone Service
People, it’s the same service. It’s just a lot cheaper. You know how TJ Maxx resells brand name clothing at a steep discount? And it’s the same clothing with the same brand name that you’d find in a high-end store at a much higher price? That’s exactly how MVNOs work.
MVNOs resell service from the major name brand cell service companies. Because they are resellers, you receive the exact same cell service, from the same towers and on the exact same network, but at a greatly reduced rate. To use an MVNO, you need to own your cell phone and not be under contract with your existing service provider.
If you don’t own your phone and/or are under contract, figure out what it would cost to buy your phone and terminate your contract. MVNOs are so much cheaper that it might be less expensive for you in the long run to buy your phone and terminate your contract.
Switching to an MVNO is not difficult and you can bring your existing phone number and your existing phone. This is because, again, MVNOs are resellers and so they expect you to bring you own number and your own phone and they expect you to be switching to their service. Because of this, they make the process quite simple. I use and recommend the MVNO Ting. Another MVNO you might check out–especially if you use a lot of data–is Mint.
TLDR: MVNOs are the TJ Maxx of the cell phone service world: the same thing, A LOT CHEAPER.