4 Tricks to Buying the Best Cell Phone for Grandma

Last Updated Jan 11, 2011 10:41 AM EST

The telecommunications community may be buzzing about the latest news about Verizon offering an iPhone, but the more practical news for many is that cell phone companies are in a heated battle for your grandparent's business. That's significantly cut the cost of keeping a phone in their pockets, according to a consumer group focused on seniors.

Why are cell phones for seniors any different than cell service for anyone else? For one thing, most of our grandparents aren't texting at the dinner table or using the web to find where their friends are hanging out. They probably don't want to be talking on their cells to one group of friends while walking through the mall with another. (Grandma considers that impolite, by the way.)

In fact, they might have trouble hearing the phone, particularly in noisy, crowded places. And manipulating a Blackberry keyboard could be a challenge for those struggling with arthritis or weak eyesight.

But having a working cell phone can be a life saver if you have a car problem on a busy freeway or on an empty road. And frail seniors could benefit from having a cell phone in their pockets just in case of a medical emergency that requires calling for help.

That said, shelling out $50 for monthly service charges is a waste for someone who needs a phone only in emergencies. In fact, high prices have been cited by millions of seniors as the primary reason that they haven't bought cell service.

Alliance for Generational Equity (AGE) says that a group of companies, including Consumer Cellular, GreatCall (aka Jitterbug) and TracFone have responded to the need to provide low-cost cell phones for seniors by launching bare-bones pre-paid plans. Some other phone companies also offer pay-as-you go programs that can be even cheaper for those who rarely use their phones

If you're trying to buy a cell phone for a senior, AGE suggests you look at 4 things to get the best deal.

1. Evaluate your use. If you go into an AT&T or Verizon store, somebody's going to be pitching a $300 iPhone. But unless Grandma's wants to check her Facebook page on the fly, she might not need to spend that much. Before you buy, consider how the phone will be used. That will suggest the must-have features.

For instance, if its a phone you'll keep in the car only for emergencies, you'd want to have a car-charger and a keypad that's big enough to see in the dark. If it's a phone that's going to be used by someone with a hearing aid, it should probably be hearing-aid compatible. If you're going to text-message, you'll want an intuitive and easily readable keyboard.

2. Consider pre-paid and pay-as-you go. If you make lots of calls regularly, you'd want a regular monthly service plan. But for a phone that's only going to be used in emergencies, pre-paid and pay-as-you-go plans are far more cost-effective. AGE notes that Senior Value Cell offers a pre-paid plan for less than $7 a month ($20 every three months) that you can use in conjunction with a $14.95 phone. If you can make due with a hand-me-down phone, you can get an even cheaper deal. T-Mobile will sell you a SIM card for $10; and then offers a pay-as-you go option for less than $3.50 a month ($10 every 90 days). AT&T has a pay-for-use plan that costs $2 for any day you use it; but nothing when you don't.

3. Shop around. Phones are everywhere and the older, simpler phones that appear to be favored by seniors are particularly cheap. Don't be talked into spending $99 when the same model phone can be had for $10 from Target or a reputable re-sale site. Get the model number and shop online. If you want to deal with a particular vendor that's more expensive, tell them about the better deal that you found and see if they'll match it.

4. Beware hidden fees: Both Jitterbug and Consumer Cellular offer low-cost plans, but both also charge an "activation fee" of $35, according to AGE. If you buy a monthly service plan (rather than a pre-paid plan), you're also likely to have cancellation charges. Also ask if there's a fee to "re-load" your pre-paid phone with minutes; or whether you'll pay more for certain services -- text messages or long-distance calls, for instance -- than others.

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