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How to save on Verizon's new no-contract plans

Verizon is eliminating two-year service contracts and will no longer sell discounted phones. TODAY's Jean Chatzky explains how it will work.
/ Source: TODAY

Bye-bye wireless contracts.

On Thursday, Verizon, the nation's largest wireless company, will eliminate two-year service contracts for all new customers – and get rid of the practice of selling discounted phones.

This is clearly the way of the future. T-Mobile was the first company to do this two years ago. AT&T still offers contracts, but they’re also pushing a bring-your-own-device plan.

So what does it mean if you’re a current Verizon customer?

That depends. You can choose to remain on that plan until it expires. Do nothing and you will keep paying what you're paying now. But if you decide to switch to the new wireless plan, you can’t go back to your old plan if you decide you don’t like it.

If you’re a new Verizon customer, you have no choice. You will be enrolled in a pay-as-you-go plan.

First, there are three things to buy:

  • A phone: Now you’ll either buy your phone outright or through monthly installments and pay the full price – which is more like $600 to $700 for a top of the line model, not the $200 or less that consumers have been used to paying at subsidized rates.
  • A data plan: You’ll order from a menu that sounds like you’re buying a T-shirt: Small (up to 1 gigabyte of data) is $30 a month; medium (3GB) is $40; large (6GB) is $60 and extra large (12GB) is $80. (If you need even more data, it’s available all the way up to 100GB for $750.)

If you go over – you’ll pay $15 per GB, so you’ll want to be sure to buy as much as you need. Here’s a handy mobile data usage calculator to help you figure out what you can do with 1GB of data.

  • Access: Connecting a single phone on Verizon costs $20 once your contract is up, $40 before then (because you bought your phone at a subsidized price). Once you hit your upgrade date, Verizon will automatically drop your cost per line from $40 to $20. Tablets cost $10 to connect and wearables $5. Calls and texts are unlimited.

What about Friends and Family? It’s going away for new customers. Now you will just buy a big bucket of data and pay to attach your devices to it.

Will this save you money?

It should – particularly if you’re easy on your phone. Wireless companies have historically been able to offer subsidized phones by charging high fees for texting, voice and data. You paid those rates even after your contract was up. Now, the monthly costs will be lower because the subsidies won’t be bundled in.

An example: If you are currently paying that $80 a month to Verizon under a service contract but switch and keep your old phone, you can add another gigabyte of data by selecting the 3GB medium plan and drop your cost to $60 a month.

Heavy data users also should benefit, since the new pricing is structured so that savings increase the more data you use.

But don’t expect the savings to be huge.

For example, under the old Verizon two-year contract, a customer with an iPhone 6, unlimited talk and text and 2GB a month of data would pay $80 a month, a one-time network access fee of $40 and $199 for the phone, for a total of $2,159 over the contract period.

Under Verizon’s new pricing, that same customer, with a medium plan of 3GB a month, would pay $40 a month for data, $20 a month for network access and an up-front charge of $649 for the iPhone 6, for a total of $2,089. That works out to savings of just $70 over two years – or a little under $3 a month -- assuming you don’t exceed your data allowance.

But even if you’re paying for your phone month-by-month (generally interest free) you can save money by holding onto a phone for more than two years. And if you buy a used phone, you can bring your cost down even more. You also have the option of selling your used phone when you buy a new one, which can net you hundreds of dollars.

There are other ways to save, too.

  • Consider a smaller provider: Consumer Reports recently gave three small providers – Ting, Consumer Cellular, and Republic Wireless top ratings. They buy capacity in bulk from the big carriers in bulk and pass their savings onto their customers. They have an edge on value, but the big providers have the edge for service, reliability, customer service and a faster network.
  • Watch your data. As Verizon’s new pricing makes clear, going over on data is where your costs will add up.

Most people can get by with 1GB to 2GB per month, especially if they use Wi-Fi wherever and whenever possible.

These services in particular devour your data: Watching videos, making video calls, streaming music (a half hour a day and change and you’ll consumer 700 megabytes – or about two-thirds of a gigabyte -- a month), uploading HD video.

If you have trouble with your kids going over the limit, see if your provider offers a family manager. That way, you can give your kids as much data as you think they need and then cut them off.