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How to buy a smartphone that doesn't break your budget

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Maybe your smartphone went through a wash cycle and never recovered, or you lost it, or a monkey stole it. For whatever reason, sometimes you need a new phone and you don’t have much money to spend on it. In my case, I’ve just really stubbornly kept the same iPhone 5C for six years, so the lithium-ion battery was pretty far gone, among other issues. I also lost the phone, which forced the issue of getting a new one. Anyway, here’s how to make an affordable smartphone purchase!

Step 1: go to your preferred service provider and offer a year's worth of toenail clippings and two drops of blood in exchange for an iPhone XS. If that doesn't work, throw your second-born child into the bargain (first-born is way too valuable for this situation). Just kidding. I’m actually writing about buying a phone outright instead of with a contract, and buying refurbished instead of new. Those are the two things I did recently so that I could get a device that’s got the specs I was looking for, without setting me back a month’s rent! I’m sharing all the details below, in case you want to do the same. Disclaimer #1: I don’t have any tips (at the moment) about how to get the latest cutting edge smartphone on a tight budget. If being in the vanguard of new technology is really important to you, then it probably is worth paying for a contract that gives you access to upgrades. I’m more of a “get something functional, flexible and with a clear price tag” kind of girl. Disclaimer #2: Do not offer toenail clippings and blood, or children to your cell phone service provider. Also, I am not funny enough to come up with that suggestion - it came from the satirical hilarity of Rachel Blumenthal’s brain, who edited this article.

Buy Unlocked

Phones that aren’t linked to a carrier’s plan are called unlocked phones. I first discovered this when I was looking for a smartphone in the US that I could move to Spain with in 2012. There are a few advantages to unlocked phones that really fit my nomadic and minimalist lifestyle:

  • flexibility to switch carriers, plans, or SIM cards without penalty

  • no hidden phone-related debt - the price of the device is one-time and super transparent

Buy Refurbished

Brand new smartphone models released in the last 12 months are the most expensive. You can usually get nearly the same features in last year’s model, or even one from 2 years ago. That’s a pretty safe window to guarantee the battery will still be good, and the device can still run the latest version of iOS or Android. You can save hundreds of dollars off the retail price by buying a refurbished, slightly older device. Used or unboxed phones that have been returned to the manufacturer, carrier, or a trusted retailer (eg. Amazon) and fixed up to factory specs are called Refurbished or Renewed. Terminology differs between manufacturers and retailers (I’ve seen Certified Pre-Owned too), but the important thing is that the device has been tested, repaired, and cleaned, and any faulty components have been replaced. Apple even guarantees a new battery in every refurbished phone (part of the reason I went with a refurbished iPhone)! Refurbished phones are sold for hundreds of dollars cheaper than their brand new counterparts. Buying refurbished is not the same as buying a “used” phone - used devices could have any number of unresolved defects and are usually sold as-is. You can also run into issues with used phones if you buy a phone that was stolen! So I stuck with trusted carrier and retailer sites to look for refurbished/renewed phones to avoid that whole gamble. Once a model has been released for a year or so, you’ll start to see refurbished devices for that model. I found mine on Amazon Renewed. Manufacturers and carriers also often have refurbished sections of their websites, like Apple Certified Refurbished, or Samsung Certified Pre-owned. Best Buy has a Refurbished & Pre-owned selection, but make sure you read the fine print and get a good return policy and warranty before you purchase. Watch out for less mainstream retailers who claim to sell refurbished devices! They may use the terminology, but you could still get a bum deal. I recommend sticking to the phone manufacturers and Amazon, who all have reasonable return policies and warranties on refurbished devices.

Got less than $200 to buy a phone right now?

Even if you’re looking at only unlocked and refurbished smartphones, it’s going to be tough to find anything under $200 (especially if you include the price of a phone case). So here’s my suggestion: get a prepaid flip phone for $20 to hold you over. Yes, it’ll be inconvenient. However, every time you have to wait until you get home to use a computer or laptop for social media, email, etc., instead of your smartphone, that’s more motivation to earn $200 to buy a smartphone.

Tip for saving up for a smartphone: got some extra time and a laptop? Sign up as a virtual assistant on Upwork. It doesn't even require transportation. My girlfriend Casey has been using this on the side both while job hunting recently and at her current farming internship to make some extra cash, and she’s found it really convenient.

Kenzie’s spending

Here's what I spent replacing my lost iPhone 5C in February, by buying unlocked and refurbished:

$186 certified refurbished (unlocked) iPhone SE (2016) from Amazon Renewed

$17 Spigen Tough Armor case for iPhone SE (2016)

$9 Spigen Tempered Glass iPhone SE Screen Protector (pack of 2)

$19 Tilemate (1 tile)

Grand total: $231

I included the Tilemate in the total cost of replacing my smartphone because the reason I had to get a new one is that I lost the old one. So I figured I'd put a preventative measure in place. I put one Tile in my wallet and set up the app on my phone so that I can ring my phone from my wallet, and vice versa, as well as being able to locate them on a map. I use it so much!! And I love the cute little melody the Tile makes. Reminds me of retro arcade games. Hopefully this information makes it super easy for you to shop for a phone when you need one. If you’re nerdy about finding exactly the right features for your phone, I mapped a process for that below. Enjoy!

Choose your criteria

Which of the categories below are most important to you? Choose the top 2 to help you make a quick but sufficient comparison of smartphones that doesn’t involve researching for days.

Durability and water-resistance - maybe you're really clumsy, or you do a lot of outdoor sports. If your phone is likely to take a beating or be dropped a lot, a more rugged smartphone might be a good idea. However, extra shock and water protection can also be accomplished by getting a really protective case (my Spigen Tough Armor case is nice because it’s sleek and doesn’t add a ton of bulk to the device. Otterbox and Lifeproof cases are even more protective.)

Camera - do you take a lot of photos and video on your phone? If you own a separate digital camera, maybe phone camera quality is less important. Are you using what you capture for personal use, or does it need to be professional quality? Screen size - My #1 criteria was that I wanted a small device that fit comfortably in the palm of my hand and in my pocket. Alternatively, you might be looking for a large device for a variety of reasons: larger/easier to read font options, more screen space to see details of videos or games you're playing, etc. Most of the smartphone specs list screen size more clearly than the full length and width of the device, so it's an easy point of comparison.

Speakers - Are you really picky about the quality of sound coming out of your smartphone? Some phone case + speaker location combinations enhance the volume and quality of playback compared to others, or you might actually want to invest in a smartphone with higher quality speakers.

My Criteria:

1. Device size (I wanted <5'' screen)

2. Durability and Water-Resistance (for hiking, travel & general clumsiness)


Rather than doing too much of your own research, use lists that people have already curated. Here’s how:

Use Google to search with the terms below. I use "best" and the year, so that the list is up to date and you don't waste your time saving money on a device that's going to break quickly or doesn't have great features in the area you're looking for.

Search: “Best ___________ smartphones 2019” Terms to choose from:

  • stereo speakers

  • camera

  • compact

  • big phone / phablet

  • rugged

  • waterproof

I ended up using 3g's "Best Compact Smartphones 2019" list and Lifewire's "The 8 Best Rugged Smartphones of 2019" list.

Now that you’ve got your two lists, write down any of the smartphones on those lists that do a good job meeting the two criteria you care about most. Don’t worry about the price yet, because we’re looking at new devices, not refurbished ones. However, if something’s more than twice as expensive as your budget, look for an earlier model of it - they often have similar features.

More tips for comparison:

  • It’s likely worthwhile to only look for smartphones that run on the same operating system your old phone used (eg. iOS, Android, Microsoft). It’s kind of a hassle to learn a whole new set of screen interactions, and might not be what you’re looking for after the stress of losing or breaking your old phone.

  • IP-67 or IP-68 are good certifications for waterproof/water-resistant and shockproof devices. If you see these, it's well-designed for durability.

  • you can also life-proof your phone by adding a good protective case and screen protector. So don't fret too much about not finding an option that's IP-68 certified, if there are less durable phones that fit your top criteria better

Once you’ve got your top 1-3 phones, look on Amazon Renewed and the manufacturer websites for refurbished devices. Hopefully you’ve found a deal on a phone that fits what you need!

As a minimalist, I try to only buy really functional things, so every now and then I go down the rabbit hole researching a certain item I know I need, which gives me a bunch of detailed knowledge that could also be useful to other people! I also love finding the sweet spot between affordable, sustainably made, and high quality stuff.


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