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How to Not Break the Bank as You Upgrade Your Smartphone

You can score a great — and affordable — device without spending $1,000 or more

spinner image new iphone 13 devices on display on a wooden table
If you don't want to spend the money to buy one of these top-of-the-line Phone 13 Pros, you may want to consider the third-generation iPhone SE.
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Since 85 percent of Americans own a smartphone — up from 35 percent a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center — it’s no surprise that many have questions about if and when to upgrade.

An older phone may struggle to run the latest apps, or you might find that your aging iPhone or Android loses battery power more quickly than it used to. Fixing a cracked screen might cost too much compared to what the phone is worth.

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Maybe you’ve been seeing advertisements for 5G and realize your current device can’t run on these faster cellular networks. Or worse, if it runs on a 3G network, you probably won’t be able to use it much longer. Maybe you’re still using a cellphone for calls and a few texts but are ready for a “smart” upgrade.

If your phone is showing its age and is something you rely on daily, perhaps now is the time to change. The good news is you don’t need to pay upwards of $1,000 for the cheapest Apple iPhone 13 Pro or $1,200 for a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra.

You can score a great device for a third of that — or less — if you’re willing to trade in your old smartphone, an option many carriers and retailers offer. Just remember to properly delete your data first.

You can also save by choosing a phone with fewer bells and whistles. Granted, you’ll sacrifice a few features, but you might be surprised at what you can get without refinancing your home. Or you might discover that you don’t need to upgrade.

Assess the problems first

Does your battery drain quickly? If cash is tight and you can’t buy a new phone yet, replacing the battery may do the trick when its power is gone before the day is over or its performance feels slow. If your iPhone is not under warranty, you can bring it to an Apple store and pay to replace the battery, which should be $50 to $70, depending on the model. Plus, many independent stores and chains, such as Best Buy or uBreakiFix, can install new batteries in Apple and Android smartphones for about the same price.

Is your screen shattered? A broken screen could cost about $200 to replace. Instead, you may decide a new device is a better investment.

Is your phone acting sluggish? Try this before making a decision: Update your software to the latest version your phone will accept. That should improve performance. Close apps and browser windows you’re not using right now. If you’re running out of storage, delete apps you no longer use.

Planned obsolescence is a myth

Many people believe smartphone manufacturers make old devices stop working so you’ll be forced to buy a new one. While the rollouts of multiple smartphone models each year may feel like planned obsolescence, they are not.

Companies such as Apple, Samsung and Xiaomi — the three largest smartphone makers in the world in 2021 — would not benefit from crippling users’ devices. Not only could this lead to bad press and negative comments on social media, but unhappy customers might switch brands.

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That said, in late 2017 Apple admitted it used software updates to slow down older iPhones because the phones, which have older lithium-ion batteries, could randomly and suddenly shut down. The company considered slower performance the lesser of two evils.

But Apple agreed to pay up to $113 million to owners of the iPhones as part of a class-action lawsuit. Plus, the company offered battery replacements for $29 instead of $79 each. Apple also set up a support page with tips to maximize your iPhone’s battery performance.

Samsung, which considers introducing glitches in its older phones against its design philosophy, says it is lengthening its upgrade cycle so people won’t need to buy as often as they used to. Like Apple, Samsung continues to support older phones with regular operating system updates and monthly security patches.

Economical options are few for Apple fans

We’re assuming that you’ve already determined your favorite operating system: Android or Apple. If it’s Apple, you have one company to go to.

If you don’t have money to spend on Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone 13 family, consider the third-generation iPhone SE for as low as $429. The iPhone SE borrows many of the iPhone 13’s features, including a stellar camera that can shoot well in low light; fast 5G cellular connectivity; the A15 Bionic chip, billed as the fastest chip in a smartphone; and access to Apple services such as Apple ArcadeApple MusicApple TV and countless apps.

Also worth noting are the myriad accessibility features with iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, including a built-in screen magnifier, text-to-voice that reads content to you and support for iPhone-certified hearing aids.

The trade-offs: The iPhone SE is a smaller device, at 4.7 inches with an LCD screen instead of the 6.1-inch iPhone 13 Pro or 6.7-inch iPhone 13 Pro Max, both of which have superior OLED displays. You may find the SE more difficult to see and navigate than a phone with a larger screen.

It has a single wide-angle camera instead of the multiple lenses on the back of the iPhone 13 family. Battery life tops 15 hours in the iPhone SE compared with up to 22 hours with the iPhone 13 Pro. It also still has a physical Home button with Touch ID like older iPhones.

Pro tip: Apple typically unveils new iPhones every September. When the iPhone 14 is officially announced, prices for the iPhone 13 should drop. Otherwise, iPhone prices rarely drop throughout the year.

A refurbished late-model phone from a reputable seller, such as Apple, Amazon or Best Buy, can save a few hundred dollars and get you a bigger screen. But look at the fine print to see exactly what functionality was tested, what parts such as a battery might have been replaced, and how long you have to return the item if it doesn't live up to your expectations.

More Android manufacturers mean more choices

Android’s “open” operating system allows more companies to join team Android. That means more competition for your dollar.

Samsung has three main families of Galaxy-branded smartphones: its “flagship” S series, including the Galaxy S22 and larger S22 Ultra; the A series, which offers core features at a lower price; and the Z series, including the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Flip Z, both of which feature foldable screens.

Samsung’s highest-end A series phone, the 6.5-inch Samsung Galaxy A53 5G ($449), offers an advanced camera system with three lenses and dual sensors, 128GB of storage, fast 5G wireless, a faster processor and more system memory (also known as RAM) than other A series phones. All Galaxy devices offer many accessibility features to help people facing challenges in dexterity, hearing and sight. 

Google, Android’s parent company, has seen success with its Pixel-branded smartphones, which start at $599 for the Pixel 6 and $899 for the more advanced Pixel 6 Pro.

Android smartphones from Xiaomi (pronounced “shau-mee”) deliver a lot of bang for the buck. The 6.7-inch Xiaomi 11T Pro 5G ($515) includes 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, 5G wireless and a 108-megapixel camera with 4K video recording.

The trade-offs: Samsung’s least expensive phone, the Galaxy A12, now on sale for $179, has modest specs that might be enough for casual users. It includes a 6.5-inch LCD screen, 32GB of storage to hold all your apps and media (with the option to add more memory via a micro SD card), 4G cellular connectivity and a 48-megapixel camera that can take clear photos and 1080p HD video — not 4K or 8K.

Xiaomi’s least expensive phone, the Redmi 9A (starting at $159), has a 6.5-inch screen, dual cameras, 32GB of storage and 4G wireless speeds.

Pro tip: Samsung doesn’t usually cut prices for Galaxy phones, but often it will bundle a device with something else, such as a pair of wireless earbuds, for free. Look for these promotions on Samsung’s website.

Refurbished Android phones are also available online. Check into the same issues as iPhones before buying.

spinner image one hand holding a generic smartphone and another holding a shopping bag
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Trading in your old device? A few tips

1. Clean it up on the inside. Before you donate, recycle or trade in your old phone, it’s absolutely critical to properly remove your personal information. Simply choosing to “restore” or “factory reset” your device will work if the phone is newer than 2012 for an iPhone or 2015 and newer for Android.

Also remember to remove your phone’s memory card, if it has one, and its subscriber identity module card, better known as a SIM card, which holds your phone number and often your contacts. You should be able to pop that into your new phone or have someone at a store or kiosk do it for you.

2. Let it make money for you. Many mobile phone providers and phone manufacturers, including Apple and Samsung, encourage you to trade in your old device to buy a new phone at a lower price. Do the math to see if it’s the way to go.

This is the easiest solution, since you don’t have to find a buyer. But you may get more for your phone if you sell it elsewhere.

Some for-profit platforms, such as Decluttr, ecoATM and Gazelle, will buy your phone and resell it for you depending on its age and condition. If you want to find a buyer yourself, you can post it on an e-commerce site, such as Craigslist, eBay, Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor.

If you still have the phone’s box, include it, and don’t forget the charging cables. If you have a case that goes with the phone, advertise that, too. You won’t need it for your new device because smartphone sizes change.

3. Keep yourself safe. If you’re meeting someone in person, be sure to do so in a public place, during the day and perhaps with a friend. Accept only cash if you’re transacting in person, never a check.

4. Look into insurance. Finally, when you get your new phone, consider an extended warranty as a kind of insurance. However, it’s not always a good idea: Consumer Reports says a warranty’s value depends on a few factors. First, check whether the credit card you used to buy the phone or your homeowners insurance covers damage.

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