Smartphone Hidden Costs

“Buy a Blackberry Pearl!” the ads say. “Only $0.00!*” Then you look at the fine print, and it says “*With two-year contract and activation fees. Some restrictions apply.” A part of you wonders if this is a good idea or not. But you go ahead and pay for the thing, and sign up for a data plan with unlimited texting. Pretty soon, though, you find yourself going back to the store for accessories and picking up software online, from that essential book reader you had to have to the game that was on sale for only $5. And before you know it, you’ve gone through half of next month’s budget. What gives?
The fact is, buying and owning a smartphone – whether a Palm Centro, Blackberry Pearl, or even an Apple iPhone – can cost you a lot of money. And that low, low price is only the start of the expenses. Here’s what a smartphone really costs, and what sort of expenses you should be planning for.

Phone service charges

This one is obvious, so let’s list it right off the bat. How much will it cost you per month to use that smartphone? What plans are available, and how many minutes and text messages do they give? Do you think you can stay in those limits? Using the Internet or text messaging over the limits they set can be insanely expensive … as if an AT T; data plan didn’t cost enough to begin with.

Look for loopholes that can save you money. Can you get a family plan and share expenses? (And would you be okay with sharing the minutes?) Can you forego a data plan, especially on smartphones like the Palm Centro that have extremely poor web browsing? What times of the day and week do they allow you to talk without using your minutes? Read the fine print, and look for opportunities.

At the same time, also look for traps. You already know going over your limits can cost you a fortune, but did you know that you have to pay an activation fee to set up a new cellphone account with most carriers? Or that if you cancel your contract before it is up, you have to pay an enormous cancellation fee? Watch out for these things, so you won’t be surprised by them. Or they may come back and bite you.

Extra hardware and accessories

Think about what you’re going to be doing with your phone. Can you really just toss it into your purse? Not all smartphones have flip covers; you might need something to keep that screen from getting scratched, especially if it’s a touchscreen. And what if the keys get torn off? A protective case is a given, because you don’t want your phone to get damaged.

Are you going to make hands-free calls with it? Listen to MP3s? Use it while it’s on the other side of the office? You may need a Bluetooth headset. But does your phone support Bluetooth wireless? If not, can you use a normal one? I didn’t want a wireless headset, but my Palm Centro does not have a normal headphone jack, so I had to buy a special set of earphones and microphone from Palm’s online store.

Another thing to consider is memory. How much on-board memory does your new smartphone have? Do you know how many pictures and MP3s that translates to? What are you going to do when you find out you can only put half of an album on it? Find out before you buy your phone if you need to buy a memory card for it, and look up what kinds of cards it supports. The MicroSD cards used by most smartphones can be very expensive, and yet you might need one to do almost anything with your phone.

Extra software and games

Do you know what kind of apps will be installed on your phone when you buy it? Are they programs that you can live with, or will you need to buy extras? The iPhone App Store lists thousands of programs, but even the Palm Centro or Blackberry Pearl can have numerous third-party apps installed on them. And depending on what you’re planning on doing with your phone, you may find one or more of these apps essential.

My old Palm Pilot had a book reader program, but in order to read books on my smartphone I had to pick up a special book reader for almost $20. In order to transfer files between my computer and my phone’s memory card, I needed to buy another program for almost $10. And if it hadn’t come with Pocket Tunes and Documents to Go preinstalled, I would have had to buy even more software just to listen to music and edit Microsoft Office documents.

Games are another expense. Are you going to want to play any games? If so, which ones, and where can you get them? Usually you can download a demo of any particular game, to try it before you buy it. But it’s easy to download as many of these as you want, and pretty soon you’re being asked to pay money to keep playing each game. If you want to play games on your smartphone, decide which ones you really want, that you could see yourself playing regularly. Then only buy those. And if a new game comes out, try the demo and then wait a month or so to make sure that you really want it.

The Upshot

Buying a smartphone isn’t a one-time expense. It involves recurring charges, that you’ll have to keep paying the cell company. It also involves hidden expenses, including draconian overage fees that might make you gasp at your bill.

On top of that, smartphones rarely come with everything that you need to use them. You might find yourself paying more for “extra” hardware and software than you paid to “buy” the smartphone in the first place!

If you know about these expenses and anticipate them, you won’t be caught off-guard and find yourself digging into your food budget. And if you plan out your spending and save up until you can afford a smartphone, you may find that you have money left over for real extras … like games! Good luck, and have fun with your smartphone!