Let's talk about open phone marriages

Shared or "family" smartphone plans sometimes are just an illusion of savings. Here's how to price out and reconsider your joint contract marriages.

Credit: Image via etherealdawn/Flickr

Starting next week, I'm going to propose a trial separation with my wife—not in our marriage, but our joint phone contract. We both just need some space.

Joining your significant other's cellphone contract is almost a rite of passage in modern American relationships. The mostly correct assumption is that it's just more convenient for one person to track and pay the bill. The other assumption that goes with it is that the big four cellular providers in the U.S. provide discounts for those willing to make someone else commit to two years of heeding limits on talking, texting, and data trading.

But as carriers built out and bought up the infrastructure for 4G, LTE, and other higher-capacity data networks, they switched from all-you-can-eat data plans to distinct caps. And they started treating data like minutes: feel free to share them, and share the overage fees when one of you assumes too much.

The problem with that is that couples can, indeed, vary quite far in how they use data, and often not in the way they might assume. Anecdotally, I've found that tech-savvy, app-happy, gotta-have-the-newest smartphone owners often use less data than those who bought a smartphone mostly for email and Facebook. Those are broad caricatures, but stick with me.

Tech types try to get onto Wi-Fi wherever possible, know the rough size of the data in videos and music downloads, and have probably dealt with a painful overage fee at some point or another. Email-and-Facebook types have a phone that just works, and when things get boring or busy, they use them. Why would Songza make an app for the iPhone, and Apple approve it, after all, if it didn't make sense to stream a great soundtrack for yourself at work? And that is how you end up with a phone bill that looks more like a car loan payment.

There are other parts of a joint smartphone contract that don't always work out well, too. Both spouses are subject to the same coverage lapses. One spouse dropping and cracking their phone far away from "upgrade time" requires both contractees to figure out a tricky, costly replacement plan that works for both people on that network. And one partner might all but require unlimited talk, which is standard on some networks, but another partner might save with fewer talk minutes—and so on for texting, data, international usage, and other aspects.

wsj_chart.jpgOriginal results from Wall Street Journal
A multi-phone plan with differing data needs.

More than those possibilities, though, I just haven't seen a lot of value in combining phones under the new share-your-limited-data plans. See for yourself by using the Wall Street Journal's extremely helpful comparison tool. On some plans, simply adding another device for "sharing" the allotted data can cost $40, with no boost in talk minutes or data caps. In some cases, one partner, or both, might do better on a different contract, or perhaps a good no-contract, pre-paid smartphone plan, or even the remarkable $30-per-month, no-contract T-Mobile plan for people who barely ever talk.

I'm not saying this is an easy discussion to have. It can sound shady, wanting to take your phone and its use off your partner's bill (it did help unravel Breaking Bad's Walter White, after all). And if the reason you're splitting up, so to speak, is because you're hungering after a particular phone, well, that doesn't seem like the move of a wise adult. But using the Wall Street Journal's pricing tool, and checking out some of the no-contract competition, you might just find that your marriage can survive a cellular separation. Put the hundreds you might save toward a nice date night.

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