Low-cost and free cellphone options for seniors

July 6, 2014 

Dear Savvy Senior: What are the cheapest cellphone options available today to seniors living on a shoestring budget? I only need it for occasional calls. — Seldom Calling Senior

Dear Seldom: For financially challenged seniors who only want a cellphone for emergency purposes or occasional calls, there are a number of inexpensive no-contract plans you can get. Or, depending on your income level, there are also free cellphones and monthly airtime minutes you may qualify for. Here’s where to find some of the cheapest deals.

NO-CONTRACT PHONES

One way infrequent cellphone users can save money is with a prepaid cell phone — also known as pay-as-you-go phones. With a prepaid phone there’s no contract, no fixed monthly bills, no credit checks and no hidden costs that come with traditional cellphone plans. With this type of service, you buy a special prepaid phone, then pre-purchase a certain amount of minutes (for talk or text) that must be used within a specified period of time.

While most major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon offer inexpensive prepaid plans, as do independents such as Net10, Cricket and Virgin Mobile, some of the best deals are offered by TracFone (tracfone.com, 800-867-7183) and T-Mobile (t-mobile.com, 800-866-2453).

TracFone has phones that start as low as $10 and call plans that cost less than $7 a month. And T-Mobile has a super-cheap 30-minute plan for $10, and minutes don’t expire for 90 days. That averages out to $3.33 per month. If you need more talk time, they also offer an annual plan where $100 gets you 1,000 minutes that are good for a full year. T-Mobile does, however, charge a one-time activation of $35.

FREE CELLPHONES

If your income is low enough, you also need to check into the Lifeline Assistance Program. This is a government-sponsored program that subsidizes wireless (and landline) companies who in turn provide free cellphones and around 250 minutes of free monthly airtime and texts to low-income Americans. (Some programs in some states provide more minutes, some less, and some charge a small monthly fee.)

There are currently around 15 million Americans who have a free cellphone through the Lifeline program, but millions more are eligible.

The free phones and minutes are provided by a number of national prepaid wireless companies such as Safelink and Assurance Wireless, along with a host of other regional carriers throughout the country.

Many states have more than one wireless company that provides the free phones and minutes. If you are eligible, the free cellphone you’ll receive is a basic phone that also offers text messaging, voice mail, call waiting and caller ID.

To find out if you’re eligible, or to locate the wireless companies that provide Lifeline government cell phones in your state, visit lifelinesupport.org. You can also learn more at freegovernmentcellphones. net.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior.”

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