With ongoing economic chaos is coming a flood of articles on saving money. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about. “10 Ways To Cut Down Your Monthly Bills,” “Five ‘Essentials’ You Can Do Without,” and so forth. It’s well-meaning, for the most part, and some of the suggestions in these articles are actually pretty solid. Especially for people adjusting to a world without easy credit, where it’s hard to understand the real world value of money, I think that some of these articles can be really helpful.
However, I am constantly reminded that all of these articles are written from a very specific perspective and experience, and for people outside of that, these articles can be less than useful.
For example, there’s one thing I see coming up over and over again in these articles:
Get rid of your landline.
Landlines, the argument goes, are “useless for anyone with a cell phone.” They’re a waste of money. No one uses them.
There are so many assumptions embedded in here, I hardly know where to begin. I should note, for the record, that I’m going to focus on the perspective of people living in the United States, because that’s what I know best, and that’s where most of these articles are aimed. In other countries, some of these assumptions change, rather a lot.
Let’s start with “anyone with a cell phone.”
I realize that this may come as a shock, but not everyone in the United States has a cellphone. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that cell phone coverage is not available in all areas of the United States. Like, for example, my house, where my cellphone does not work. (For me, the article should probably say “get rid of your cell phone,” but that’s proved hard for me to do.) If cellphones don’t work where you are, why would you have one? (Conversely, there are areas in the United States and in other areas of the world where landlines are not available; take, for example, in Australia, where there’s actually a subsidy for people in remote areas who need to buy satellite phones because they can’t access phone service in any other way.)
Another key reason is that cell phones can be expensive. Yes, pay as you go plans exist, and those are great, but not available in all areas, and not accessible to all folks, for a variety of reasons. If someone doesn’t have such a plan and isn’t aware of it, that’s one thing, but other folks might not be able to access a pay as you go for whatever reason, or be forced into contract plans, which usually run at least $50/month, in contrast with basic landline service, which is around $16/month and even less with Universal Lifeline Service (it would be hard to compete with the ULS price with a cell phone, actually, even a pay as you go, so for folks with very limited funds, that might be the only workable option).
An argument could be made that having a landline is a waste of money for someone who has a landline and a cell phone. But even that argument isn’t entirely valid. One of the reasons I bothered to plug a phone into my landline instead of forcing people to call my cell phone was that calls to my cell phone are not local. My number here is registered in Ukiah, which means that friends and businesses here who call me have to call Ukiah, and that’s a toll call. If they have cell phones, there’s no toll, but I know lots of folks who only have landlines, and they appreciate that they have a landline number for me. Forcing them to call my cell is wasting their money. Demanding that they buy cell phones which won’t necessarily work so they can call me without incurring a toll is a waste, especially since I’m home most of the time and my own cell phone doesn’t work there!
In my case, I have a landline and a cell phone because I had to have a landline activated in order to access DSL service, not because I wanted a landline, although I ended up finding the landline very useful when I realized that my cell doesn’t work at my house. Yes, there are other forms of Internet service available, but DSL is cost effective and functional for me, so it’s what I use. In some areas, DSL may be all there is, so people are being forced to get a landline whether they like it or not. Now, one could argue that there should be a way to buy DSL independently, so that people aren’t put in that position. But, until that option is available, I would not be quick to judge people who have landlines and cell phones.
Why do I continue to retain my cell phone, despite the fact that it doesn’t work here and I am using my landline? Because I’m under contract, and since I get nominal service at my house, I can’t cancel my contract without penalties. And the same might be true of other folks who have landlines and cell phones. I think it’s worth noting that a lot of contracts are very restrictive; I had to sign a two year contract to renew service unless I wanted to pay a small fortune for a handset. And, at the time I signed it, it seemed reasonable. Now, not so much.
How many other people have cell phones they don’t use because they can’t, but continue to pay for because the costs of canceling the contract are high enough that they’d rather just finish out the terms of the contract? I’m not saying it’s abundantly common, but it does happen, and for these folks, it makes complete sense to have a landline.
Before making sweeping directives like “get rid of your landline,” it’s worth considering context, and exploring the fact that, for some people, maybe that’s not actually workable, practical, or particularly helpful advice. These sorts of “helpful” lists always infuriate me because of the embedded social, cultural, and class assumptions.