Monday, June 18, 2012

What's Cheaper at Family Dollar

I'm a big fan of Family Dollar -- I'm not ashamed to admit that I shop there three or four times a month. But, after reading this article, I'm wondering if I need to check out an actual 99 cent store instead, if I want to save the most money possible.

This doesn't mean I'm done with Family Dollar, for sure. In the article, the author highlights the comparison items that turned out to be cheapest there, including Ocean Spray juices, Palmolive Dish Soap, Cascade Dish-washing Powder, Hefty trash bags, and Reynolds Wrap.

At Family Dollar, I personally tend to buy a lot of stuff like bags of little candy bars, toilet paper, facial tissue, and basic foodstuffs like mac and cheese, just about all of these seem to be cheaper than you could get from any other store. Some things, like gourmet mac and cheese and little candy bars, I've observed that Family Dollar charges less than half what a Target or a CVS charges.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New Verizon Option: Pay More, For Less

Verizon Wireless just announced "Share Everything" data plans, going live on June 28th. Engadget has the details here or click on through directly to Verizon's website here.

The pricing is confusing, and really doesn't seem like any sort of a discount. I can't imagine anybody going for this. These plans are definitely not any sort of discount, from what I can see.

Let's do the math: I just paid $171 to Verizon for this month's access for two iPhones, with unlimited data, and 700 shared minutes. That includes about $10 for text messages (we found it cheaper to not have a text messaging plan and just pay when it happens) and $20/mo for tethering on one phone. It also includes a 10% discount that Verizon provides to employees of the company I work for, and about $20 of the bill is taxes and administrative fees. (Also, there's a "Nationwide - Line Access" fee of $9.99/month being charged for each phone that I don't quite understand. I need to call about that.)

So if I wanted one of these new shared plans, with a reasonable amount of data, here's what I'd be looking at: $40 per phone, so $80 per month, for unlimited voice minutes and text messages. (Great, it's unlimited, but who cares. We're not maxing out our voice minutes currently.) Then on top of that, I'd be paying, say, $70/mo for 4 gigabytes of data each month.

Four gigabytes is not a ton of data -- I am told that most people use between one and two gigabytes of data each month. Probably more if you're traveling a lot, and I do travel some. And iPhones have a lot of software and application updates, and unless you're careful only to run those only on wifi, they count against your usage. So basically, we have what amounts to a modest-to-average amount of data available for each phone, and we'd have to worry about overages.

So for not-really-a-win as far as data access goes, we'd pay $150/mo. And that is before tethering ($20/mo) and taxes (approx. $20/mo), so that brings us up to...$190/month.

It's like, for the privilege of paying extra, suddenly I get to worry about data overages.

Who would go for this kind of plan?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why are cell phone plans overpriced?

My wife and I love our iPhones. But the costs! Oh, the costs. We're paying Verizon Wireless nearly $200/mo for two phones. I make maybe one phone call a week. And most of the time wifi is available and I could be using Skype instead. I got rid of unlimited text messaging, bringing the cost down by, oh, maybe $20/mo or so, but it's just not enough, and I just can't find a cheaper plan for us on Verizon Wireless. So, I've started to look around. Our contract is not up for a while, but that's not going to stop me from at least looking.

Before we get started, here are three important things to keep in mind when considering these, or any other, cell phone provider and service plan.
  • Avoid WiMAX-based 4G. Sprint's current 4G technology is WiMAX-based (as opposed to LTE-based) andClear is the provider behind the scenes, coverage is poor and the network has seemingly always had issues. We've tried to use Clear WiMAX ourselves both with home service and mobile service. It's just not ready for prime time, and I'm not sure it ever will be. Right now, true LTE 4G is available only on Verizon and AT&T, and the iPhone 4/4S supports neither WiMAX nor LTE as of June, 2012. The take-away here is: Plan your life around 3G service for now.
  • Most of these services actually utilize Sprint's voice and data (3G) network -- which has been demonstrated to be slower than Verizon or AT&T's 3G network. That's not going to be a problem for most users -- you're not going to be downloading movies over 3G. For typical usage consisting of light to moderate web browsing, email and social networking, you'll be fine. Turn on wi-fi as needed before downloading anything big and beefy.
  • Don't believe the "unlimited data" hype. All of these providers will throttle or cap you at some point. For example, Virgin Mobile says that they will throttle you if you utilize more than 2.5 gigabytes of data in a month. Unless you're streaming Netflix over 3G, you're not likely to be impacted by this. The one thing I'll miss is using Skype over 3G, but that's a small price to pay for...a much smaller price to pay ongoing. Also, most throttle instead of suspend service. Throttling is much friendlier than capping, in that you still have access to the internet, just at a slower speed. Providers who cap you will typically cut you off right there and then when you hit the limit, requiring that you pay an extra fee for additional megabytes.
  • Jump on the Google Voice bandwagon! I ported my old cell phone number to Google Voice for a one time fee of $20. Now my legacy phone number rings through to me at whatever phone I specify. I ignored whatever phone number Verizon provided to me, and I won't have to bother with number portability in the near future. If I switch providers, it'll take me about ten seconds to go into Google Voice and modify settings so that calls reach me on the new provider instead of the old provider. This process is transparent to callers -- they have no idea that you've changed anything. Also, Google's handling of voice mail is fantastic -- I highly recommend it. It can SMS you transcripts of messages. It will email you transcripts as well, and it's very easy to play back messages by clicking on the link in email or in the Google Voice app on iOS or Android. Consider this: I've never even bothered to configure my Verizon Wireless voice mailbox.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, allow me to share with you the top five cheapest smartphone plans/service options out there as of June, 2012, as identified through my research.

Option #1: Voyager Mobile - http://www.voyagermobile.com/
Service plan costs: For an android smartphone, $39/mo unlimited talk, text and internet, including 4G. For a basic flip phone, $19/mo for unlimited talk/text. The details: You need to buy a phone from them, and if you want a fancy one, expect to pay up to $550. Android only, no iPhones. Shipping times are long, it might take 3-5 weeks for your phone to arrive. The 4G service is Clear Wimax, which sucks. (I would not bother buying a 4G device for this service - I think 3G is good enough.) Voyager uses Sprint's network. This is probably the way I'd go if I wanted an Android phone with unlimited service.

Option #2: Ting Mobile - https://ting.com/getting-started/
This is another Sprint reseller, run by internet company Tucows, based in Toronto. Good guys. Pros: They're hacker friendly, so while you do have to buy a phone from them, they don't care if you clone your ESN onto your personal iPhone, so you can use it on their network (if you know how to do that). They're friendly and responsive when it comes to answering questions on their web forums. Cons: The pricing model, while it can be significantly cheaper if you're a light cell phone user, involves doing your own math. They charge a base $6/mo per phone, then you add on various blocks of megabytes, texts and minutes. You could go data only with 1gig/mo for $30/mo. If you pick a large block of minutes (2000), a thousand text messages, and two gigabytes of data, you're up to $88/mo. Might as well stick with the post-paid plans if you're going to be a heavy user. Ting is another land of Android, no iPhone here. I probably wouldn't recommend Ting, unless you are a hacker or have unique pricing needs that might make the math more favorable. (Here find somebody else's thoughts on Ting Mobile.)

Option #3: Cricket Wireless - http://www.mycricket.com/iphone 
As of June 2012, Cricket Wireless says the iPhone 4S is coming any day now. They have their own network, but they utilize Sprint for 3G coverage. For $499 you can buy an iPhone 4S outright, then pay $55/mo for unlimited talk, text and data. They have a smaller network footprint, from what I can tell, so unless you live in a big city, this is probably not the plan for you. Perhaps not good for you, but maybe it's good for me. I'm intrigued by this. I want an iPhone, and I want inexpensive service. I'd consider this provider, though I don't know anybody utilizing them currently.

Option #4: Straight Talk - http://www.shopstraighttalk.com
This is TracFone Wireless behind the scenes, selling via Wal-Mart and online. No iPhone here, but a number of Android phones are on offer. You can pick up an LG Optimus Black for $329 and then for $45/mo you get unlimited talk and text, data/web access. I'm not sure who the provider is behind the scenes -- Tracfone is a reseller of service from Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, so it might depend on which phone you get. This is the way I'd go if I wanted an Android phone and wanted the ability to be able to walk into a Wal-Mart to buy it, instead of having to wait to have it shipped to me.

Option #5: Virgin Mobile - http://www.virginmobileusa.com
In the US, Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint. So this is Sprint's network, and you're actually buying the phone and any service directly from Sprint. They have a variety of Android devices, and the prices seem reasonable. They have announced that the iPhone 4 and 4S will be available as of June 29, 2012. If their current plan pricing covers the iPhone, you can get unlimited data and texting and 300 minutes for $35/mo or unlimited data, texting and minutes for $55/mo. You can save $5/mo discount by signing up for auto billing, meaning you can have an iPhone live and on the air for $30/month with a nice amount of minutes and unlimited data. This might be the winner for me, personally, since it's Just Plain Sprint behind the scenes, and not some third party reselling me somebody else's services. I think this is the way to go if you want an iPhone. When my Verizon Wireless contract is up, this is the provider I'll be looking the hardest at.

Doing the math: Starting from zero, plan out how much you'll pay in phone plans and devices over, say, two years. On Virgin Mobile, you'll pay $649 for an iPhone 4S, plus $30/mo for two years, for a total of $1369 over that period of time. For Verizon Wireless, you can get the same phone (or maybe even with more storage) for $299, but you're going to pay perhaps $90/mo for two years, for a total of $2459.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Is this a joke?

Is this a joke, or a fake review? Read it and tell me what you think. This guy took public transit all the way from downtown out to Lincolnwood to go to....Olive Garden.

He left Chicago, to go out to the suburbs, to go eat Italian food, at a chain restaurant.

Chicago, the land of a zillion fantastic Italian restaurants. Ones like Spiaggia, Osteria via Stato, Italian Village, Quartino, Francesca's, Prosecco, Frankie's, Gene and Georgetti and Carmine's -- and that's just of the top of my head, without looking anything up. (And that's just Gold Coast/River North.) There are probably more than a hundred more within walking distance of downtown.

You wanted a chain restaurant without leaving downtown? Try Maggiano's (which is pretty damn good). Or Barnelli's Pasta Bowl. Or Buca.

Instead...you took a bus and a train to go eat at an outbuilding of a mall in the suburbs. Really? REALLY?!