You spent too much on your phone.
I’m sorry! I know it may not seem like it, since you broke it into wee monthly payments that get lumped in with your data plan on your credit card. But that maxed-out iPhone 6S Plus still put you back more than a thousand bucks, with tax. That’s rent money, man.
Dishing out for the highest-end phones used to make sense, even as recently as a couple of years ago. Your phone company subsidized the cost in exchange for a two-year contract, and frankly, anything but the best phones weren’t very good. Then the contracts died (replaced by those installment plans, which, bonus point, you should also avoid if you can afford to pay up-front), cheap phones went from sort of bad to pretty great, and suddenly spending close to four figures on a phone became downright wasteful.
Also, just to be clear, we’re not talking about the dreaded crapphone here — the sub-$200, maybe-it-works class of okay devices. Crapphones are great and handy when you break your real phone and need a placeholder, but below we’re looking at handsets you’d actually be happy with day to day.
Ultimately, it’s your money. Spend it how you want! But if you want to spend it smart, here are a few phones that get the job done for about half of what you spent on your last iPhone.
Aha! You thought this was going to be a bunch of Android phones you’ve never heard of, didn’t you? That’s okay! Until a few weeks ago, it would have been. Fortunately, Apple recently resurrected its smaller phone form factor in the iPhone SE, a boon for small hands and small budgets alike.
The iPhone SE still isn’t cheap, exactly; it starts at $400, but you’ll probably be happier with the $500 version that has four times the storage. There’s a lot to like, though, and that shrinkage doesn’t mean many compromises compared to the much pricier iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. The SE has a great camera and marathon battery life, and doesn’t need two hands to navigate. It’s not just cheaper; for a lot of people, it’ll actually be better.
iPhone SE, Apple, $400
Google’s Nexus lineup exists to show off the best that Android can offer. It comprises two smartphones: the Nexus 6P, which is bigger and starts at $500, and Nexus 5X, which at $350 is the Platonic ideal of “definitely good enough” phone.
What’s great about the 5X is that it’s good enough at everything that you never find yourself secretly wishing it would fall in the toilet and die a watery death. It’s fast; it’s got a great camera, a solid display, a manageable size; and it comes unlocked, which means you can use it no matter what carrier you have.
If you’re anxious about using Android, all I can say is that it’s gotten a lot better. It’s very good! Better than iOS in lots of ways, even, although your mileage will vary depending on how many other Apple devices you have in your life and how you use them.
Most of all, though, this is the phone I recommend to people when they ask me what they should buy. That’s partly because I’m frugal, but mostly because I know it won’t disappoint.
Nexus 5X, Amazon, $329.44
Remember what I just said about under-$200 phones being a nonstarter? That was a lie, and I’m sorry. There’s one exception to that rule, and it’s the Moto G.
Think of the Moto G as the base-level trim Camry of the smartphone world. Okay, that’s not exactly a slogan you’d put on a billboard. But the Moto G is what happens when you strip away anything that could be considered an extra feature — NFC, a 1080p display, a giant display — and make a phone that just works, for cheap. It’s not, you know, exciting. But if you’re looking for excitement from your phone, it might be time to hit up a ropes course or something. Fresh air, you know? Does wonders.
The one piece of advice on the Moto G is that you should hold off on buying one for a minute. This week, Motorola just announced the next generation of Moto Gs (plural, there are three of them for some reason), but not when they’ll hit the U.S. or how much they’ll cost. Assuming it’s still at least moderately cheap-ish, the one you’ll want is the Moto G Plus, which bulks up the camera — one of the few things you shouldn’t skimp on if you can help it.
Moto G, Amazon, $165 (but you might want to wait)
Last Year's Model
One reason budget phones have caught up to their more expensive counterparts? The ceiling rises a little slower every year. Flagship devices get a little faster, maybe the battery lasts a little longer, and they might have some new gimmick (like, say, the iPhone 6S “3D Touch” powers you forgot existed until now), but there’s just not that much difference between an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 6S, or a Galaxy S6 and a Galaxy S7. They even look, if not exactly identical, basically the same.
So why not hit up the discount rack? You can still buy an iPhone 6 from Apple for a hundred bucks less than a 6S, or, if you want to really save some cash, it’s incredibly easy to find a gently used model. And that goes for pretty much any top brand.
To avoid disappointment and pain, I’d avoid eBay or Craigslist when seeking out a like-new smartphone. Look instead at refurbished models from a reseller like Gazelle, or even Amazon, which has a whole “Certified Refurbished” electronics store that offers like-new, warranty-protected gear (like iPhones) for cheap.
You’ll still spend more than you would on a strictly budget phone. But it’s the best way to save a little cash without a lot of compromises.