When Should I Upgrade My Cell Phone and Do I Really Need To?

Jeff Blevins

The truth about upgrading your phone is that it is generally unnecessary. Marketers tout the latest must-have gadgets to make you think otherwise, but in reality, you probably don’t need them. New phone models used to have significant differences, but technological advancements in the mobile phone world have slowed recently. With prices still rising, phone upgrades are starting to show diminishing returns. Unless you truly need a particular feature your current phone lacks, it’s probably not critical.

Are there exceptions? Of course. If your device is broken, buggy, slow, or so outdated it doesn’t do what you need anymore, it might be time to upgrade. If you want the absolute latest gadgets to stay on top of the trends, that’s another reason to upgrade. Or, if your phone is more than 7-10 years old, you could probably benefit from an upgrade.

There are two ways to upgrade:
  1. Traditional: Just go buy a new phone.
  2. Lease a new or refurbished phone.

How Do Upgrades Work?

Many carriers will lease you a phone on their network, and then tack on the monthly lease fee to your bill. The fees vary, mostly based on the cost of the device and the length of the contract (most contracts are billed on a monthly basis), but it generally runs from $20-$25, to upwards of $50 a month or more.

Once the lease is up, and/or you have paid off 80 percent of the phone, you have the option of buying the phone outright, or trading it in for an upgrade to a newer model, which will begin the same leasing cycle all over. Most contracts run for at least 20 months, and by that time new models will be available. Since your carrier doesn’t care what brand of phone you want, you can also choose different models, like switching from an iPhone to a Galaxy or vice versa (as long as your provider’s software supports the phone).

The upside is you can get a brand new phone with less money down. The downside is you are paying a higher bill each month and don’t own the phone at the end of the term.

Why Skip the Upgrade?

Here are a few reasons to consider:
  • Cost
  • Minimal new software features
  • Minimal new hardware or technological features
  • Paying to be trendy
Is the cost worth it, even if paid out monthly? Most new devices are expensive, and the phone carriers want to incentivize you to pay. The fact is your old device might be just fine.

Many of the critical software updates that the new devices advertise can be available for older models by download, especially on Apple, which is diligent about updating its security software.

The decision to upgrade or not comes down to which features are most important to you. There really aren’t a lot of new developments that make a new phone or upgrade necessary, unless you have to have the eye-scanning and augmented reality technologies. Camera features have definitely advanced on newer models, so that may be a factor for the amateur photographers out there. That can cost as much as $700 or more..

Another alternative to upgrading, particularly if you have a very outdated phone and are on a tight budget, is a refurbished version of a newer model. Refurbished phones are those that were returned to the manufacturer for whatever reason, tested for problems, and restored to full-functioning, factory-standard condition. Those have limitations too, but can be a good option when budget is important.

Unless it is broken, if your device is less than two years old,you probably don’t need a new one. Desire -- that’s another matter.

Jeff Blevins is a published author who's left his footprint in the digital and scripted worlds. An entertainment industry veteran, his writing includes biographies, sports, automotive, education, and pop culture. The Seattle native -- and his keyboard -- live in Los Angeles.