Would you ditch your wireless carrier for love?

This edition of Ask Maggie explores whether or not it's worth it for couples to combine their cell phone service into a family plan.

When two people decide to get married, they merge their lives, often combining families, finances, and worldly possessions. But should this also include their wireless plans?

In this edition of Ask Maggie I explore the answer to a question that many newly engaged couples might be asking themselves: do we sign up for the wireless family plan? Or do we go it alone?

Since I am facing this very issue right now, I decided to ask my own question and share my thought-process with my Ask Maggie readers.

The things we do for love

Over the holidays, my boyfriend Mark proposed to me under the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. It was very New York and very romantic. Since then, there's been lots of talk about wedding venues, churches, photographers, and guest lists.

Most recently, we've gotten into the really heavy topics, such as finances. Will we combine our bank accounts? Who will take care of the bills? And since my wireless contract with AT&T is up in March, we wondered if makes more sense for me to switch from my individual AT&T service plan to join a family plan on Verizon Wireless where Mark is already a subscriber.

Will the Verizon family plan save us any money? And if it does, is it worth giving up my $30 unlimited data plan with AT&T?

I compared the two plans to see just how much we'd spend on the Verizon family plan versus how much I spend on my solo AT&T plan.

And here's what I found:

A comparable number of voice minutes, unlimited text messaging, and data plans for the Verizon family share and for my individual AT&T plans are exactly the same.

The happy couple standing in front of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City just moments before they got engaged.

On AT&T I pay $40 for a 450 minute voice plan, $30 for unlimited data and $20 for unlimited texting. On the Verizon Wireless family plan, Mark and I could share either a 700 minute voice plan for $70 a month ($35 each) or a 1400 minute plan for $90 a month ($45 each). The shared unlimited texting plan is $30 a month, or $15 for each of us. And we'd each have to continue to separately pay for our data service. Mark is grandfathered into an unlimited data plan. And I'd have to pay $30 for a 2GB plan. I currently have an unlimited data plan from AT&T for $30 a month.

Since we don't have a home phone, the 700-minute plan may not offer enough minutes for us. So we'd likely subscribe to the 1400 minute plan for $90. This makes the cost savings on the unlimited text messaging for the family plan a wash. At the end of the day, we're each paying $90 a month for service whether I switch to the Verizon family plan or keep my solo AT&T plan.

A family plan for two people as I've discovered through my research may not offer many discounts. Larger families can save some money in the plans for voice and text messaging services. For example, the unlimited family texting plan allows the entire family to text all they want for $30 a month. But since each additional line after two on a family plan is charged $10 a month, savings for voice on texting services can be eaten away quickly.

The one area where there is still no discount for being on a family plan is data. This is especially tough for families with more than one smartphone on the plan. As smartphones become more popular, it seems that data service is also becoming the costliest piece of the entire service plan. And it would be nice if wireless operators could offer customers some sort of discount for families.

So far neither AT&T nor Verizon is offering a family plan for data. But executives from both companies have said that they are considering them. In fact, Verizon's chief financial officer Fran Shammo said on the company's earnings call this week that it's looking at how to implement the smartphone family data plan.

"We need to make sure it's a win-win for customers and for us," he said. "So we will continue to work on that. But it's important to note that we are a premium priced service in the market. And we will continue with that strategy, and we'll continue to win."

What this tells me is that even when the family data plans hit the market, the savings probably won't be that enticing.

Back to my dilemma: pricing for my individual plan on AT&T is exactly the same as the family plan with my fiance Mark on Verizon. Neither carrier will offer us a break on our smartphone data. So what's a newly engaged girl to do?

Let's look at the pros and cons of each.

AT&T pros:

• AT&T offers any-to-any mobile minutes. This means that any cell phones I call are not counted against my monthly voice minute total regardless of whether that cell phone is on AT&T's network or not. This might be part of the reason why I only used 300 minutes of a 900 minute cell phone last month. (I have actually re-sized my plan since I was paying for far too many voice minutes.)

• I can keep my unlimited data plan. I bought my last AT&T phone in March 2010, which was only a few months before the company discontinued its unlimited data plan and went to a tiered offering. Since I already had my unlimited plan as part of my contract, AT&T will let me keep it indefinitely so long as I don't make any changes to the data service. I only use between 300MB and 400MB of data per month. So I am definitely overpaying for my unlimited plan. But like many people, I worry that I might need that unlimited plan someday. And since AT&T's and Verizon's capped plans cost $30, there's no real incentive to switch.

• I could upgrade my phone today. My contract isn't officially over until the end of March. But my phone is on its last legs. And if I stick with AT&T, I can get a new phone right now since I am already eligible for my upgrade. Of course, I could stick it out until the end of my contract. But the fact that my phone simply dies even when it says the battery is halfway charged is driving me crazy. One of the last times this happened to me, I was out shopping and I needed to text a friend to tell her where to meet me. I didn't have my phone charger with me, so I ran eight blocks to the nearest Apple store to charge my phone. Needless to say, it would be nice to have a phone that doesn't die at the most inconvenient times.

AT&T cons:

• AT&T's network is the pits. I will admit that AT&T's network has gotten somewhat better in New York City, where I live. But anytime I am moving, whether that is walking down the street, riding in a taxi, taking the bus to New Jersey or zipping up and down the east coast on Amtrak, I lose service. And it is maddening. Mark tells me the fear of dropped calls simply doesn't exist for Verizon customers.

Verizon pros:

• The network rocks. Well, at least that is what everyone says. I have never been a Verizon Wireless customer. Before AT&T I had been a Sprint customer. I liked the service in New York City where I live. And it was fine when I traveled to most big cities for work. But service was horrendous in Delaware where my family lives. Even though Sprint's service map claims that area has service, I could never make or receive calls at my dad's house unless I was standing in the middle of the street.

I know from the phones I have tested on the Verizon network over the years that the service is top notch. Verizon is considered to have the strongest wireless network out of all the major carriers. And I know from friends and family who have the service that it is strong in all the places I frequent. So that's a good indication, that I would be satisfied with the network.

• I could upgrade to an LTE smartphone. I know that AT&T is also deploying LTE, but Verizon will have much better network coverage for at least the next two years. The company said recently that its network is available to more than 200 million people. And the company is ahead of schedule in terms of deployment. By the middle of 2013, Verizon to cover its entire 3G wireless footprint with 4G LTE service.

• Being on a family plan means there is only one bill to pay. I use autopay to pay my phone bill. And my statement is e-mailed to me every month. But it would be nice to consolidate the number of bills that Mark and I receive every month. And a family plan would certainly do that.

Verizon cons:

• I lose my unlimited data plan and mobile-to-mobile minutes. I know I don't really need the unlimited data. But there's something that bothers me about paying the same amount as my unlimited plan for a plan that limits me to 2GB of data. It doesn't make much sense and I recognize that, but it rubs me the wrong way. Also, if I end up needing more voice minutes because Verizon doesn't have any mobile-to-mobile calling as part of its plan, I won't be getting such a good deal after all.

So there you have it. I haven't decided what I will do yet. But I am leaning toward Verizon. I will probably suck it up and live with my crippled iPhone 3GS for the next couple of months, so that I have Verizon as an option.

But it's a big step for me to leave AT&T. We've been together a long time. Switching carriers and signing a new two-year contract is a big commitment. Well, I guess it's not as big of a commitment as the other one I am about to make, but you get the picture.

I know I'm the one usually offering advice, but if any readers want to share their thoughts with me on this topic, please do. Feel free to leave you comments below or e-mail me.

Will I break my contract if I buy a new phone?

Dear Maggie,
I've run into a bit of a snag with my current phone. It is a Droid Pro by Motorola. It is the second one I've had. The first got so buggy it wouldn't even function, so a replacement was sent. I'm still not satisfied with this product. However, at this point there's seemingly nothing wrong with the product besides it being a cheap Android device.

I'm currently locked into a two-year contract with Verizon that doesn't expire until January of next year. I would love an iPhone 4S or just an iPhone 4. Is there any way to upgrade early without being hit with heavy fees for breaking a contract? At this point, I'm so unhappy with this phone I would consider leaving Verizon. I just need some advice.

Thanks,
Paul

Dear Paul,
I've got some good news for you and some bad news. First, the good news. You can get a new phone before your contract ends and not have to pay an early termination fee. So long as you stay on Verizon's network, you can use any phone you want.

Now for the bad news. Because you are not eligible for an upgrade yet, you will have to pay full price to buy a new phone.

Apple

But before you get too upset about the idea of buying a new smartphone at full price, remember that you could look for a used iPhone 4S or iPhone 4. The iPhone 4 will likely cost you less since it's an older model. But depending on how much you're willing to spend, you might be able to find a used iPhone 4S in your price range. Verizon sells refurbished phones on its Web site and there are hundreds of other sites out there selling used devices.

Also, Apple is expected to release a new version of the iPhone this year. So if you get a used iPhone now, you'll likely be able to upgrade to a new one when your contract is up next January.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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