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”.

I often hear others say things like “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 BS. 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.

Certainly, I’m not the only one. Have you gone without TV, cable, broadband, or cellphone? How’d it go?

Greg Baugues

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Greg Baugues has written 88 post(s) in this blog.

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4 Responses

  1. Kate says:

    Great post. I’m now a year cable-free, and finally just got rid of the whole TV (I have Netflix on my laptop, and it suits me fine). I considered myself strong-willed, an “urban camper” if you will…until I read this. No cell phone? Now that’s a whole new level. I’ll be interested to see how long you keep this streak alive.

  2. IMark says:

    To quote a wise man: “No TV and no beer make Homer something something…..”
    “Go Crazy?”

    I don’t think I could cut the phone out of my life – but I am trying to cut it out of my vacations. It is just too tempting to be checking email, responding to calls, texts, etc. To properly enjoy the trip and really live in the moment – you have to (or at least I have to) cut the chord. iPhones can absolutely ruin a vacation.

    I would love to get rid of the TV. I know it is a waste. And then, and then a show like LOST comes along that is so fun to watch it gets me hooked all over again. 90% of it is waste and that last 10% creates memories, laughter, and a social connection to others that I would greatly miss.

  3. Greg Baugues Greg Baugues says:

    Mark, somehow – even with TV in your life – you manage to be one of the more productive people I know. I think you’re doing fine.

    My problem is a lack of discipline. TV was the path of least resistance to leisure time – I too often watched three hours of unplanned TV and never once said after, “Man, I’m really glad I did that.”

    But, there’s awesome TV programming. I watched every last episode of Lost. Rachel and I plowed through four seasons of The Wire in four weeks, watching it on my 22″ external monitor. I still find plenty of other ways to “waste” time, but not having a TV means I’m more likely to do something I enjoy.

  4. Heidi Massey says:

    Hi Greg,
    I can so relate to this post. I have been moving in the direction of streamlining the stuff in my life. As of July 1st, I became carless. It was a bit of a challenge living in the suburbs, but I have since moved into the city, which helps. I will not be getting cable tv in my new apartment and am thinking seriously about donating one if not both of the televisions I own.

    I am doing all of this for a number of reasons. First, I think our planet can only sustain so many people and so much stuff. So I am trying to take up a little less space and create a little less waste. I am very committed to getting into better shape, so the biking is really a piece of that as well. And I really think that I will be happier in life with less stuff and more doing. My life has always been pretty great…but the goal for me is to maximize joy. I think things like TV get in the way of that.

    I am now in a 2 bedroom apartment. (I have twins who still come home from college, so I need a little space for them too.) I am working hard to figure out where to put everything, and continuing to get rid of things I don’t need. It isn’t easy. But I feel much lighter, having gotten rid of so much already. Though, I can’t imagine getting rid of my cell phone anytime soon. I haven’t had a land line for years, and I have 3 kids who I speak to fairly regularly.

    As an aside, for folks wanting to donate extras, check out Zealous Good. You post what you want to donate and the nonprofits on the site contact you to say that they want what you posted. Took me just a few hours to get a response and that nonprofit took virtually everything I wanted to donate. AND they picked everything up. There’s also FreeCycle and OhSoWe.

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