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.

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Married by a phone, not to a phone contract.

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.

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