4 min read

Six Months Without a Cellphone

I used to joke that I would go homeless before I gave up my iPhone. As it turns out, that’s kind of what happened.

In January, my wife and I quit our jobs to embark on a three-month trek across Europe to work on organic farms. AT&T let Rachel suspend her iPhone contract for $10 per month, and I cancelled service on my off-contract 3GS from the JFK airport, thirty minutes before boarding our flight to Barcelona. To cut as many expenses as possible, we also subleased our apartment, making us, technically speaking, “homeless”.

People often say “What did people ever do without cell phones?” Once we got to Europe, I started to ask myself “No, seriously… what did people do without cell phones?” Short answer: you plan more. You pick a time and place to meet someone, get directions before you leave, and you show up on time. You become marginally more comfortable with uncertainty. When someone’s running late, you live without the unactionable information of “Be there in five minutes.”

We returned to Chicago six weeks early after Rachel hurt her hip on the farm. When we got back, a lot was up in the air - we didn’t know how long it would take for her to recover, if we would resume our trip, or if we would go back to our jobs. It was a forgone conclusion that eventually I would get a new iPhone. The question was never “iPhone or Android?” or “Would life be better if I wasn’t always connected?” but “Should I get an iPhone now, or wait for the new one to come out?” After three years of watching my 3GS get slower with each iOS update, I was hesitant to sign a two-year contract so late in the upgrade cycle. I never made a conscious decision to go cellphoneless for six months… I just kept putting it off, and the pain of being without an iPhone never justified the cost of getting one.

For the first month, Rachel was on crutches, and we rarely left the house. There I found that Google Voice - my “landline” - fulfilled most of my calling and texting needs. When we did venture outside, we were typically together, and Rachel’s iPhone (which we reactivated within ten minutes of stepping foot in the States) was sufficient between the two of us. Like many Chicago couples with cars, we became a one cellphone family.

I’d like to tell you that, ever since I “cut the cord”, there’s been less distraction in my life - that I’m more present in the moment, more in tune with the world around me… but that’d be bullshit. Cancelling my service didn’t make my iPhone useless: it turned it into an iPod Touch. Aside from making voice calls, which I rarely do anyway, it still works the same as long as I’m at home, the office, Starbucks, a friend’s house. Even my church has wifi. I still check my email first thing when I wake up. I still frustrate Rachel by plopping on the couch and reading Reddit as soon as I walk in the door. I still play Words With Friends on the toilet until my leg falls asleep. Ninety dollars a month doesn’t buy me those moments - it buys me the convenience of connectivity in the time between.

And predictably, there have been inconveniences. Once I couldn’t find my friends at the agreed upon spot and came home to an email saying that they were moving to a different bar. Another time I got to a friend’s apartment, and his buzzer wasn’t working, so I had to wait ten minutes for someone else to show up to let me in.

But in six months, I’ve yet to have an “OMG I’m screwed!” moment. A smartphone is rarely the only way to solve a problem - it’s just the most convenient.  Sometimes I use a friend’s phone to call Rachel, or she has to call a friend to get ahold of me. Occasionally I ask a stranger for directions, or have to eat at a restaurant without knowing how many stars it gets on Yelp. I walked around for years thinking of my iPhone as a safety net. After a few months without it, I realized that there’s not that far to fall.

The iPhone 5 was announced yesterday - the moment I’ve been waiting for. Will I get one? I haven’t decided yet. I used to rationalize the expense as a necessity of the modern world - like health insurance. “Sucks that it’s so expensive, but what are you going to do… get a flip phone? Ha!”

That doesn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore. At minimum, I need to stash a $50 burner in my backpack - this whole experiment will seem fairly silly if there ever is a legitimate emergency. If I do splurge on the iPhone 5, I have to be honest with myself that it’s a luxury indulgence - one that comes at a non-trivial cost. If I make it to the end of the year without shelling out $200 for a new iPhone and $90 per month for the service, we will have saved about $1,100 since March. To put that in perspective, we spent $3,100 from wheels-down to wheels-up during our six weeks in Europe.

Whenever we start to believe that we can’t live without something that didn’t exist twenty years ago, I think it’s useful to challenge that assumption. Rachel and I ditched our TV when we got married, and I can say without hesitation that our lives are better for it. But when it comes to the phone, I don’t know that I can recommend “going naked” to anyone else.

If I didn’t spend so much time in front of my computer, had to travel or be easily reachable for work, or couldn’t borrow my wife’s iPhone from time to time, I’d want my own. If I don’t get a new iPhone, it won’t be because it’s not an amazing device, or because my life is fundamentally better off without it, but simply because it’s a lot of money that I’d rather spend elsewhere.