Life Without a Cell Phone

This year, I’m making the effort to live without a cell phone. It’s part of my overall effort to save money while simplifying my life. As a backpacker, all my possessions must cram into a normal 30L bag, so I’m very picky about what I keep. My possessions are evaluated by two main criteria: it must be extremely cheap, and it must be undeniably useful . Cell phones didn’t make the cut.

Mobile plans are far more expensive than most people realize. In the past, I was spending $30 per month on a basic voice plan, which translates into $360 per year. The typical smartphone user pays even more. An average 3G data plan can cost around $85 per month, or $2000 over the lifetime of a 2-year contract. To put these figures in perspective, I’m currently only spending $150 per month on groceries. An extra $2000 could pay for a year’s worth of food. Cell phones are not how I want to use my money.

So I don’t own a cell phone or landline telephone anymore. Instead, I’m relying entirely on my laptop to receive phone calls. I signed up with a VOIP provider to get an incoming number (1). This allows others to call my laptop using a regular phone number (no computer required). With my plan, I get unlimited calls to the USA and extremely cheap international calls. In total, I only spend around $70 per year for the entire plan, for a savings of $650 each year compared to my original plan. The set-up was simple and didn’t require any new electronics; all I needed was my existing laptop and WiFi access.

The trade-off is that I lose perpetual, 24/7 mobile connectivity. When my laptop is turned off, I don’t receive calls; they go straight to my voicemail. But in a way, I find beauty in the solitude of living cell-free. Each night, I enjoy the luxury of escaping the world of ringtones, text messages, and telemarketers. No one can bother me now; I return calls only when I feel like it.

Living without a cell phone might seem inconvenient, but in many ways, it’s a more peaceful way to live. Having a mobile device with instant access to unlimited media–phone calls, text messages, music, movies, apps–would be a total drain on my life. I’m already suffering from digital sensory overload; I don’t need a smartphone to bombard me with more useless trivia.

So I’m finished with my cell phone for this year. My wife decided to keep hers, so I borrow her phone on occasion when traveling alone to foreign places. As for the other 95% of the time, I’ve done quite well without a cell. In fact, I’ve only had one minor incident in the last two months. While I was taking the train to visit my in-laws, I accidentally overshot my destination by 20 miles. It took me an hour and two train transfers before I got back to Taichung.

Why didn’t you call me, Hsinya asked, to let me know you’d be late?

I shrugged. No cell.


1 Skype is probably the simplest to set-up. Buy a subscription for unlimited phone calls, then get an online number. Skype currently offers 50% off the purchase of an online number with a subscription. Once it’s set-up, you can cancel your phone subscriptions and easily save $1000/yr.

2 I once worried about not being able to make emergency calls. Later, I realized that any unused cell phone without a data plan can still make free emergency (SOS) calls, even if you lack a SIM-card. So you can keep your old cell around for emergencies without paying the phone company.

3 There are definitely cheaper VOIP providers that will support open-source, but you’ll need more technical knowledge to set it up. Since Google Voice doesn’t allow you to receive incoming calls, it can’t completely replace all phones like Skype can.

24 thoughts on “Life Without a Cell Phone

  1. Anum

    At first I felt this idea was a little outlandish – but when I think about it, before cellphones and smartphones came into the picture, people did just fine! :) I got my first cellphone when I started university, so it really isn’t it the necessity that we make it out to be. The technological culture has shifted, and people always feel the need to be plugged in online, which is why it’s made out to be something we need to buy/maintain/upgrade. Thanks for your insight Aaron!

    Reply
  2. Anum

    I would mention that one of the benefits of not buying or upgrading cellphones is minimizing e-waste, which is lethal when not properly disposed of. Out of all the minimalist blogs I’ve read, yours is one of my favourites. Very practical advice. Thanks Aaron!

    Reply
    1. aaronjlin Post author

      Hi Anum,

      E-waste from new cell phones is definitely a problem. Producing new electronics also wastes a horrendous amount of energy.

      I really enjoy searching for passive savings — money you can easily save without having to work for. While coupon-clipping and comparison shopping do save money, they waste a lot of productive time. Kicking the cell phone habit hardly requires any effort.

      The cell phone probably hurts your productivity by only a few minutes each week. Let’s assume it takes 3 extra hours each year to live cell-free. If you like to think in hourly wages, you’re saving more than $200/hr.

      Reply
  3. Tiffany

    Hi Aaron,
    Great post I didn’t get rid of my cell phone but I did make alot of changes in my service. I felt like I needed to limit my time spent on the phone plus I was under contract so my bill was always high when I was suppose to be saving by having a contract phone. I have done so much better with prepay I don’t seem to waste time on the phone, plus no bill is sent.

    Reply
    1. aaronjlin Post author

      Hi Tiffany,

      It used to be possible to buy a prepaid plan with T-Mobile that only cost $5/yr. What you’d do is purchase 25 minutes, and then never use them, except for severe emergencies (car accidents, hospitalizations). That might be a good choice if you like having the security of a cell phone.

      Reply
    1. aaronjlin Post author

      Hi there AC,

      Here’s our frugal organic budget. Back when we lived in Irvine, Hsinya and I were spending around $440/mo. on groceries, or about $220/person per month. Now I’m living in Taiwan, so the price has dropped to around $150/person per month.

      Reply
  4. Brittany

    We had a cell phone once, and you know to me it was a huge burden. No one called me at home and I always got calls from friends wondering where I was and if they could wait at my door till I got home. I hated every moment of it. I don’t want to be bothered while I am out, I am a stay at home mom, and getting out is my time.

    I’ll tell you just how important this cell phone was to me and my husband: My husband left it in his pants and it got washed and dryed, it was toast. We decided that if neither of us cared enough to even check where it was at all times, that we really didn’t need it anyways!

    My life is free of the constant phone checking, and it feels great!

    Reply
    1. aaronjlin Post author

      Hi Brittany,

      I had a similar experience with an iPod Touch. I needed it for iPhone software development, but I found out I never used it aside from work. Sorry to hear about the wash/dry cycle though!

      Reply
  5. Karen (Scotland)

    I’ve deliberately never allowed myself to get hooked on a mobile phone. I didn’t buy one until 2002 and I deliberately bought a Pay-As-You-Go so I’m aware of every minute I use it. I use about £10 a year, if not less.
    Now that my kids are at school/nursery, I tend to carry my phone because the school like being able to contact me in an emergency. I’ll also carry it when my husband and I go shopping and know we will have to go our separate ways for a while.
    As a mum of four, husband at sea, I appreciate having the phone for side-of-the-road emergencies.

    And that’s about it.

    Friends that ask for my mobile number are told that I have a house phone, an answering machine, answering service (if phone is engaged) and an email address. Plenty ways to contact me…

    I agree with Brittany – if I’m out the house, I’m probably busy so why call me? Also, if I’m on my house phone and it’s engaged, DEFINITELY don’t call me on my mobile?!

    Great post again so thanks.
    Karen
    (Scotland)

    Reply
    1. aaronjlin Post author

      Hi Karen,

      The prepaid plans are a great tactic, too. I think you can get a basic used mobile phone at your local thrift store for around $15 and get a basic pre-paid plan for about $25/yr. I may try that someday if Hsinya gets upset for me being late too often.

      Reply
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  8. aaronjlin Post author

    Hi Yen,

    You could try Skype. Sign up for a subscription with unlimited phone calls and get an online number. Skype has a promotion where you can get both for about $60/yr. Now, regular telephones can call your computer with an ordinary number. All you need is a computer with a headset (the one I use costs $16).

    However, if you already own a cell phone, I recommend you don’t give it away. Cancel your phone plan, but keep the old cell around ot make emergency calls (they’re free). Even without a SIM-card, most cell phones have the ability to make SOS calls, which Skype is incapable of.

    (There are VOIP clients besides Skype, but they require more technical knowledge to set up.)

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      Aaron,

      I stumbled upon this site by typing in “life without a cell phone” because I was getting harassed by my family and friends. I hadn’t had a cell phone for awhile and didn’t feel I needed one, but I was willing to compromise if I could find a really cheap plan. I was sick and tired of being under contract and paying $40-80 a month. It’s insanity, especially when we really don’t need cell phones. And we really, really don’t need data plans, either. (I mean, isn’t that what computers are for? Can’t you go home and check your Facebook?)

      I read about prepaid phones here, which sadly I didn’t know much about. But now I’ve got a prepaid phone, my friends and family are happy, and I’m happy because I’m paying so little for it!

      I’m new to living green (although I’ve always been a minimalist by nature) so I’ve got a lot to learn and your blog is really inspirational and filled with good ideas and information. Will keep reading…

      Katie

      Reply
    2. aaronjlin Post author

      @Anonymous: Glad this post helped! I’ve been living for about 7 months now with only a laptop, and things have turned out just fine. Occasionally I’ll borrow a cell phone, but I still don’t see the need to buy one.

      Reply
  9. Jason D.

    Aaron,
    It wasn’t long ago that I stumble upon your site. I found that it was unfortunately one of the few (probably the ONLY) sites on the web that caters to people who are looking to take a step back from the rat race. It finally dawned on my wife and I just how badly we needed our cell phones when we BOTH forgot ours at home. It was sorta tough getting used to but we made it the whole day and we were so much happier to see each other at the end of the day!

    The fact that we were paying over $80 a month for a service we seldom use and could do without got to us both. So we got our internet back since we’d use that more and purchased Ooma for home. You spend roughly $200 up front but minimal taxes and fees each month to have FREE calling anywhere in the US with very cheap calls internationally. I couldn’t wait to ditch my phone and when I did, the AT&T agent couldn’t understand why I was reverting back to landline.

    Thanks Aaron for the inspiration!

    Reply
  10. Isabel

    Hi, interesting post. I’m a college student and although I do have a cell phone, I use it infrequently. I just like having it on me at all times so that if an emergency happened, I can always call someone or they can always call me.

    However, I have realized that I worry far too much about my mom’s cell phone use. She doesn’t place much importance on the use of a cell and although she has one and often takes it with her when she goes out, I worry about the times when she doesn’t take it with her. Seriously, I get panicky because I think “what if something happens to her and she has no way of contacting me?”. Or when we’re out together and we split up for a while to go do shopping separately, I worry about meeting up with her if I can’t call her to arrange it.

    All sorts of “what if?” scenarios go through my head but I’m trying to deal with this because I don’t want to be so tied down by worrying about a cell phone!

    Thanks for your post.

    Reply
  11. Cosmin

    Hi Aaron, I am totally into your idea, and now only that I will already improve my life leaving behind all that norms that any phone certifies for when it comes to SAR /Kg in body. Not the best to say that we stay more healthy in this way, but very true. And what Isabel said is again very true… People will worry in this situations because it tends to make them secure by allowing them to do such called calles, impulses… Whatsoever this do not stops here, while we do pay in order to make usage of technology that is around us and affects our life daily. And this is global, if not yet would love to be never so. We lack of other things when we think mobile, but what if? So what? What if you want to call but you cannot pay… How many just have a phone and they forgot even its meant to be a phone, because someone moved to fast in evolving… Is just a fake idea of evolution, when allows people to asleep in, and trust in a disguissed phone.

    Cheers,
    Keep on without it… No harm to even share a like, and I wonder why no one gives a sign around your post… Even foolish algorithm passed your blog maybe behind… Thank you!

    Reply
  12. Cole

    Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea
    shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and
    screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her
    ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

    Reply
  13. Henry

    I think what you are doing is really great.

    This year, I realised that I really do not need a mobile phone. After a close analysis of my day i noticed that I am reachable without a mobile device: nine hours of my day is at work – I am reachable on the landline. I ride my bicycle home from work – I certainly do not want to receive a call during that time. Once I am home, I am reachable again on my landline. If I am out, I am usually with someone or want to be on my own and not interrupted by a call. I fell very liberated.

    At work, I have even changed the way I respond to email. Because my job requires me to keep my team of workers productive and happy, I feel I should not be in my office responding to email. Thus, I have turned off the auto-check and only manually check my email two times a day (once in the morning, and once right before I head home). Because I am spending more time with my team face-to-face, I rarely receive emails. The ones I do receive are from companies fishing for business.

    Reply

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