A Cheap Pre-Paid Cell Phone Plan

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After dorking it up for some time, I recommend:

Tracfone Wireless Pay-As-You-Go cell phone plans:

  • Cheap!  If you can limit your data use when away from wifi, you can get cell service for $11 per month.  They have plans for larger amounts of data too.  
  • Bring your own phone.  Buy a new phone for full price, or used on eBay, then activate with Tracfone.  Works with all the major flagship phones such as iPhone, Google Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy.  No contracts, no monthly phone leasing.  Tracfone does sell phones too, including older and cheaper iPhones and Android phones.  
  • Runs on the major national cell phone networks (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile).  You can choose either a GSM sim card (AT&T, T-mobile) or a CDMA sim card (Verizon) when you sign up.  The phone you choose may determine the network you need to be on.

Pre-paid wireless service gives you the same cell phone connectivity for less money.  If you can limit your cell data usage (by using wifi and some self-control), you can save a ton of money ($700 per year!).  If you still want to be able to use data freely, pre-paid service can still save you money. 

I use and recommend Tracfone.  I have used Tracfone for many years because it saves me the most money and works with any phone I choose.

Tracfone has numerous service plans.  The lower your phone usage, the less you pay.  They sell airtime cards that get you a certain amount of voice minutes, texts, and data for a set period of time.   The amount of texts and data the airtime cards include often aren’t enough, so they sell add-on cards for more texting and data.  To save the most money, you’ll need to limit your data usage away from wifi.  Things that chew up data quickly are streaming video, streaming music, facetime, frequent or endless social media and news feeds, downloading new apps, or daily use of navigation.  More basic use like internet browsing or occasional navigation doesn’t use a lot of data.  

For low phone usage, the cheapest option is combining the 60 minute / 60 text / 60 MB 90-day service card ($18w/ auto-refill) with the 1 GB data ($10) and 1000 text ($5) add-ons as needed.  Minutes, texts, and data are in separate banks, and roll-over forever as long as you maintain service.  If you use all the 1060 texts and 1060 MB of data every 90 days, this works out to $33 every 90 days, or $11 per month.  If you use less texts or data, it gets even cheaper.  Limit your music and video streaming to wifi only, and save a ton a money on cell service compared to ~$70/month plans on Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.  Don’t be fooled by the plan titles, the “basic phone cards” work just fine on a smartphone.

Need more voice, texting, and data?  Just add more 500 minute cards ($10), 1000 text cards ($5), or 1 GB data cards. 

They have plans with more built-in minutes, text, and data too.  The 500 minute, 500 text, 500 MB, 30 day card is $14.25 per month w/ auto-refill.

Live on your phone all day every day, or need to stream video or facetime away from wifi?  But still want to save money?  You’ll need a pre-paid plan with unlimited talk and text, and a big data allotment.  Total Wireless (Verizon network) is $33 per month with 5 GB of data.  I would also look at Mint Mobile (T-mobile network) at $20 per month for 8 GB of data, but you have to pay for a year of service upfront to get that good a price.  

Need truly unlimited data?  You need a post-paid plan from a major carrier like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.  But it’ll cost you!

Keep reading to Dork It Up!

Cell phone plans are a major monthly expense, but one that can easily be reduced by going to a pre-paid plan instead of an unlimited plan from a major carrier.  I need and enjoy having a smartphone, but I don’t want to spend $70 a month on it.   

Functional Requirements (in order of importance, for me):

  1. Good coverage where I live and travel.  The phone needs to work when I need it!
  2. Cheap. 
  3. Adequate amounts of voice, text, and data allotments.
  4. Convenience.

Good Coverage

Pre-paid plans operate on Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO’s).  They buy access to cell phone towers from major cell phone networks, and resell that access to you.  Tracfone doesn’t have cell phone towers, but thru Tracfone, you can access the same towers that everyone else uses.

When you sign up for Tracfone, you can choose either GSM service (which operates on AT&T and T-Mobile towers), or CDMA service (which operates on Verizon towers).  These networks are fairly equivalent these days, but with some differences depending on where you live or where you visit.

Check out coverage in your area at Whisleout.com or using the Open Signal app.  Check out the coverage maps for Verizon (CDMA), AT&T (GSM), and T-Mobile (GSM), and use this info to help choose your type of service.  The coverage map on Tracfone’s web site may combine CDMA and GSM coverages, so it isn’t useful.

If you bring your own phone to Tracfone service, you’ll need to know if it’s a GSM or CDMA phone, as many older phones will only work with one or the other.  When you sign up for Tracfone, their customer service can help you determine that also.  If it’s a fairly new and unlocked iPhone, Google Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy S phone, it will work on either GSM or CDMA, as these phones have radios for both network types built in.

I’ve been using pre-paid plans on CDMA (Verizon) towers for over 10 years, and generally get the same quality service coverage as my friends on official Verizon plans.


The whole point of going to a pre-paid cell phone plan like Tracfone is to save money.  Long ago I wanted to reduce my monthly expenditures, and switching to a pre-paid plan was painless way to save $60 per month.  I tend to think of monthly bills on an annual basis, so I save $700 per year with my cheapo cell phone plan!  My wife’s cell phone is on Tracfone too, so we save $120 per month ($1400/year!).

It appears that typical unlimited cell phone plans (or those with large but perhaps not unlimited allotments of data) cost around $70/month (+ taxes and fees!) from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.  There are lots of options, shared data plans, etc. that might vary this quite a bit, but it’s always pretty expensive.

There are pre-paid plans such as Total Wireless, Mint Mobile, Straight Talk, Cricket, Boost Mobile, etc. that give unlimited voice and texts, plus a decently large allotment of data.  These start at around $35 per month, and can save you a bit of money without changing your high-use cell phone habits a lot.  Some are even cheaper, such as Mint Mobile at $20 per month.

Light duty cell phone users can save even more with plans that are not unlimited everything.  I don’t talk on the phone much, maybe a couple hours a month.  I also have super cheap home phone service thru Ooma, so if I’m going to pick up a phone for a 30 minute conversation, it’s usually not on my cell phone.  I am a light texter, sending and receiving only a handful per day.  

For low phone usage, the cheapest option is combining the Tracfone 60 minute / 60 text / 60 MB 90-day service card ($18w/ auto-refill) with the 1 GB data ($10) and 1000 text ($5) add-ons as needed.  If you use all the 1060 texts and 1060 MB of data every 90 days, this works out to $33 every 90 days, or $11 per month. There are no additional taxes or fees, so that’s all you pay!

Limiting data use takes a bit of thought, and potentially a change in behavior for some people.  Like many people, I’m guilty of staring at my phone too much sometimes, including repeatedly checking the news on the internet, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, etc.  To save on data, I generally limit my big data usage to when I have wifi, typically at home or on breaks at work.  If I’m out and about, I don’t need to stare at my phone, so I generally don’t.  I do use my cell data for looking up info as needed, getting directions through Google Maps, checking a price at Amazon before I buy something in a real store, etc.  I use several hundred MB per month of data on my cell phone service.  So a $10, 1 GB data card can last me a few months.  If I run out of data quicker than that, no big deal, $10 tops me off again. 

The biggest sink for data use is streaming audio and video.  To make a cheapo cell phone plan work, you can’t regularly stream things away from wifi.  Streaming audio eats up around 100MB per hour.  Streaming video uses about 1 GB per hour (or more for HD video).  A single Youtube video won’t destroy your data allotment, but multiple videos per day certainly will.  I have a collection of music downloaded as mp3’s on my phone, so I don’t need to use a music streaming service.  I only watch TV at home, so I don’t need to stream videos on my cell data.  I don’t need to video chat (Facetime, Skype, etc.) on cell data, I can wait until I’m home for that too.  Beware that the streaming videos in your social media feed will eat up lots of data too.

You can check your actual data usage on your iPhone or Android phone.  Dig around in the settings menu or Google how to check.  In January 2020, I used 165 MB of cell data, but 25.9 GB of data on wifi!  I stream a lot of music while at work, and check newsfeeds too often.

Many apps on your phone can be setup to avoid data usage, by blocking streaming, backup services, app updates, etc. if you are not on wifi.  I recommend setting these up so you don’t accidently use a bunch of data, or so your phone doesn’t use data without you knowing!

If you want music, podcasts, or movies with you at all times, download them to your phone on wifi, so you can enjoy them anywhere without using data.

Adequate Voice, Text, and Data Allotments

As discussed above, I don’t need much.  The $18 card gives you service for 90 days, and includes 60 minutes, 60 texts, and 60 MB of data.

60 minutes typically covers me for 90 days.  I just don’t use my cell for long conversations.  Minutes roll over too, so I have 580 minutes built up in my bank.  Low on minutes?  No big deal, add 500 minutes for $10, this would last me many months.

60 texts per 90 days doesn’t cover me, but a $5, 1000 text add-on card lasts me around 6 months.

60 MB of data per month is nearly nothing, but a $10, 1 GB add-on card usually lasts me several months.  

Need more voice, text, or data?  Use add-on cards.  If you use 2 GB or less of data per month, this is still cheaper than most plans that give you big data allotments up front.

If you talk on your cell phone more than 1 hour per day, or text constantly, an unlimited talk and text plan likely makes more sense.  If you use a ton of data (like if my 25.9 GB of data was on cell data instead of wifi), you’ll just have to cough up the money for an expensive plan from a major carrier.


Tracfone plans require a small amount of oversight and inconvenience.  I think it’s worth it to save nearly $1400 per year.  

You can set up auto pay for the standard minutes/texts/data cards, so your account can be refilled automatically every 30, 60, or 90 days.  This is key for the auto refill discount, and more importantly to ensure your plan never runs out.  If your plan runs out, you will lose all the minutes, texts, and data allotments in your banks!

I haven’t seen an option to auto refill the add-ons, like the $5 1000 text card, or $10 1 GB data card.  You don’t know your remaining texts or data allotment unless you either 1) check the Tracfone website or app on your phone, or 2) your texts stop going through or your data stops working.  I recommend checking your account once a month or so, and topping off before your balances are low.  My phone does put a little “X” on my signal meter when I’ve run out of data, but I don’t always notice the hint right away.

There are no physical Tracfone stores, but I’ve found customer service fairly helpful.  The online chat option usually works well.

Options Considered

There are many, many prepaid cell phone plans to choose from.  At the time I picked Tracfone, it was the best option for lowest cost ($11/month!) at my usage level, being able to bring your own phone (I use mine with a Google Nexus 5x my wife’s Google Pixel 3a), and that used the Verizon CDMA network for great coverage.  I’m still not aware of a better plan from another company with these criteria, but it’s been years since I researched it heavily.

If I was a heavier phone user, I’d get something with unlimited talk and text, and a big allotment of data.  A good option on the Verizon network is Total Wireless with 5 GB for $33 a month.

If T-Mobile service coverage is good enough for you (and it seems pretty good now), I’d take a very close look at Mint Mobile.  It’s only $15 to $23 per month for unlimited talk and text, and 2 GB of data per month.  They have options for more data too.  The lower price requires buying a year of service at a time, but you can do so after a trial period to see if you like it first.


First, I recommend determining what your real needs for a cell phone plan are (you don’t really need to check Facebook all day!).  Then, find the plan that meets your needs and saves you the most money.

Tracfone has a lot of options, so I recommend checking there first.  I haven’t found a way to beat $11 per month!

I chose Tracfone based on my own independent research, pay for service with my own money, and am sharing my personal experience with the service.

Many of the links on this site are “affiliate” links.  If you use the links provided to purchase the recommended items, or to navigate to the web retailer site to purchase anything at all, I may receive a small commission.  These commissions will help me expand this site and provide you with additional recommendations. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you!

How to Get Started

  1. Determine what network(s) your phone will work on.  If you already use your phone on a major network, it clearly works there, but it might work on other networks too.  AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM, Verizon is CDMA.  If you are starting fresh with a new phone, check here to see what service your phone works with.  If your phone works with either, compare coverage in your area at Whisleout.com.
  2. Get a physical CDMA or GSM Tracfone sim card.  This  “keep your own phone sim kit” comes with both GSM and CDMA sim cards in one package, and Amazon will get it to you faster than Tracfone will.  They can also be purchased in physical Walmart, Target, and likely other stores.
  3. Once you have your sim card, contact Tracfone customer service (phone or online chat), and they can get you setup. 
  4. Sign up for a plan, and setup autopay. 
  5. Enjoy the money you save!

Dork It Up Yourself

If you want to compare cell phone plans, check out www.whistleout.com.

If you want detailed information on anything related to cell phones or plans, dig into www.howardforums.com.

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