Why I use an ancient phone: a tale of money and things.

The little phone that could!

In September of 2012, with a UPS tracking number in hand, I excitedly walked into the office of Housing Services at the University of Lethbridge. A few weeks earlier, I had moved into the student residence at the university and started my first year of postsecondary education. I discovered that when ordering packages, this office was the final destination, thus the reason for which I was charging into the office to try and retrieve my precious cargo. Names were exchanged, recent deliveries were rummaged through, and a box emerged. I was so excited to see this item that I did not even wait to leave the office: I opened it right there at the counter, to various oohs and aahs of the wonderful Housing Services staff (though I’m uncertain as to whether these sentiments of awe were genuine, or simply offered so that I would not feel alone in my state of excitement).

In this box was the first iPhone 5 that anyone in the room had seen. As a longtime Apple fan who had a bit of money saved away after having spent a year working as a cashier at a Shell gas station, I had decided to pre-order this lovely little piece of technology as a present to myself – and this was not just any iPhone 5, but the top-of-the-line version, including enough storage to hold my entire iTunes library (remember those?)! Of course, an iPhone 5 seems miniscule and relatively useless compared to all modern devices, but at the time, its size and capabilities were almost unprecedented, and it just seemed like the coolest thing ever!

I was thrilled with my magnificent new telephone, meaning that my faithful iPhone 4, despite being only two years old, was unceremoniously relegated to the role of “phone that sits, forgotten, in a drawer”.

Over the years, this iPhone served me faithfully. Perhaps my interest in new shiny toys wore off, or perhaps my pragmatic (“cheap”) way of thinking prevented me from spending money on a newer, fancier phone when my old one still worked, but for whatever the reason, I never felt any need to replace it. I used this device daily until 2017, when an unfortunate incident involving a shattered screen led me to replace it. Although it was repairable, it was also starting to have trouble keeping up with the latest software updates and apps, so I replaced it with a top-of-the-line iPhone SE, justifying the purchase by telling myself that if I had gotten five years out of my previous phone, I could get five out of a new one!

I couldn’t bring myself to throw out the old iPhone 5. It seemed as though having a spare phone wouldn’t be a bad idea, so when I was travelling through Washington in 2017, I took it to a cheap phone repair centre in an ugly shopping mall in Bellingham, where the damaged screen was replaced (by a subpar knockoff screen, but hey, it worked). The iPhone returned to service, eager to prove its worth, and it soon became my “travel phone” that I used with a local SIM card when I was in the United States or Europe. After I moved to France later in 2017, the iPhone 5 was, like its predecessor, sent to live in a drawer, only to be pulled out for occasional use by friends and Couchsurfers who would come to visit me and just needed any kind of phone to be able to get in touch. This continued until the end of the summer of 2020, when my beloved iPhone SE was accidentally drowned and given an early retirement to live the rest of its days in The Cloud.

With this latest iPhone having succumbed to the muddy subterranean water of Paris, I was faced with the prospect of buying a new phone. I really preferred iPhones over Android devices, partially due to the convenience (iMessage, synchronisation with my iTunes library, generally excellent user interface), but mentally, I could not justify spending a minimum of around €500 on an entry-level iPhone, all of which had giant screens that I didn’t like. The alternative, of course, was to get a cheap Android phone, which would not integrate with my current systems, and which used an interface that I simply did not like. At this point, totally uninterested in spending a large amount of money without putting a lot of thought into it beforehand, I pulled my old iPhone 5 out of its drawer, as a joke: surely, trying to use such a device in 2020 would be ridiculous, given that it could not update to the latest software, use the latest apps, or last more than four hours without needing a charge!

I just needed a phone to be able to communicate with people, and this phone could still make phone calls, send iMessages, and use WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It could even stay synchronised with my beloved iTunes library onto which I still clung so tightly. The phone could not use anything but painfully slow 3G data frequencies (due to being a North American phone being used with European phone services on different frequencies), nor could it use any modern app from the App Store (goodbye, GetAround car rentals, SNCF train ticket booking, Deliveroo food orders, perhaps certain dating apps), but after some reflection, it did not seem that the use of those apps would justify replacing the phone and condemning it to either my drawer or the scrap heap. Why not see how long I could last with this old phone? Surely, I would be fed up with it after a few weeks… right?

One €15 battery replacement later, and I had set up my ancient phone just the way I liked it. I reduced my cell phone plan to one that did not include any data (given that the 3G data was so slow as to be virtually useless), and instructed my friends that should they need to reach me, they would need to actually call me or send an old-fashioned SMS (despite the use of WhatsApp and iMessage being far more prevalent). The horror!

This happened in September of 2020, and oddly enough, I am still using that phone now, seven months later. This experience has its quirks:

  • Despite WhatsApp being supported, the majority of emojis used by my contacts just show up as question marks due to the age of the phone.
  • Due to not having any data, I am more-or-less disconnected from the world when I am not within range of my home or work Wi-Fi networks.
  • Due to the phone being too old to use any Microsoft Office apps from the App Store, I am never tempted to look at work e-mails.
  • Any time the phone comes out, those who have not seen it are truly amazed both that such an old piece of equipment is still in service, and that someone would willingly use it. Having people offer replacements is not uncommon, but I hope that the idea that ‘My phone does not need to be replaced every two years’ stays in their heads somewhere.

In the end, why would I replace my beloved, ancient phone? It does what I need it to do – and nothing more. Its limitations, in turn, prevent me from wasting time browsing the internet on-the-go, and have nearly eliminated the instinctual action of pulling out my phone when I do not have any other activity occupying my mind. When I am walking around in public, instead of being glued to the screen, I am more likely to be observing the world around me, and enjoying the moment.

I would love to push this phone past the ten-year mark, and I’ll be thrilled if it reaches its tenth birthday in September, though this gets more and more unlikely as the days go on:

  • The charging port sometimes works only sporadically due to corrosion. There have been a couple of times where I have found myself with an empty battery after a night of not-charging because of this issue.
  • The cheap knockoff screen installed in Washington in 2021 is starting to misbehave, and a new one would cost me over €50, which is a questionable investment, given that the phone’s obsolescence may render my “essential” apps like WhatsApp obsolete at any moment.
  • My “online” bank, based around the use of a mobile app, can no longer provide updates that are compatible with the phone. An old version of the app still works, for now, but it might conk out at any moment, leaving me unable to access banking services, a situation which would force me to replace the phone with something newer.

However, in the event that none of those problems gets worse, I will keep happily using my ancient phone as long as it keeps running and does what I find necessary.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to beat my dad’s record, though. He is still using an iPhone 4, a phone that was introduced eleven years ago!!!

Do I need it?

Those who have known me the longest will know that I have a bizarre relationship with money. Despite never particularly enjoying the act of spending money, I have always gone to great lenghs to be able to spend lots of it should I need to. The day I turned 18, I signed up for two credit cards, just to build credit history for use later in life. I have never maintained a balance on them, except after having forgotten to pay a bill for a few days. I avoid spending money where I do not see a justification, and value the stability that I have been able to provide for myself through reasonable financial management.

Now, more than ever, I ask myself asking this question before virtually every purchase: Do I NEED this? Is this the best way I could be using my money?

Spoiler alert: the answer, in most cases, is “no”.

  • My desktop computer is 11 years old. I can afford to replace it… but do I need to, when it still works?
    • NO! When I work, I use a computer provided by my workplace.
  • I am 27 years old, and have lived for the last three years in a 14m² apartment, with one single window facing a wall. People have always seemed to be surprised when they heard about my living situation
    • Would it be nice to have a nicer place? Sure! Would the extra cost of a nicer place outweigh the inability to spend that money on things that I consider more important, such as travel, cultural outings, or an occasional visit to a nice restaurant? Nope!
    • One week ago, I finally moved out of that apartment into a bigger place, not because it was bigger, but because I would have the pleasure of sharing it with a good friend. In the end, having a roommate will cost me more every month, for a large apartment that I do not consider necessary, but the value of living with a friend is totally worth the not-insignificant financial sacrifice. The added space, while nice, was never an incentive for me, as I never needed more space than I already had.
  • When I was in university, I bought my first car for $1000 CAD, and spent about $2000 CAD on maintenance for it over the five years that I owned it. This car, a 1990 Toyota Tercel, was the most uniquely ugly car on my university campus, but by golly, it sure did the job, and at a fraction of the price of my classmates’ vehicles. Over five years, I drove it almost one hundred thousand kilometres, often driving across Canada in -30°C temperatures.
    • By the time I left Canada, I could have replaced that car several times, with something from the same century, but… why? Apart from the endless comments from all directions, it got me from A to B, and by keeping that car, I was able to spend money on things that meant so much more to me: travel, a motorcycle, moving to France, you name it!

Are the environmental consequences justifiable?

Even more significant than the money spent on an object, at this point, is the question of whether purchasing or replacing something justifies the eventual environmental consequences.

  • Will this object be recycled, or simply thrown in a landfill?
  • What are the environmental consequences of the production of the object?
  • How does the environmental impact of purchasing a new object compare to the environmental impact of repairing an existing object?

Asking these questions when being tempted to purchase something has drastically reduced my purchases, and after spending some time in this mode of reduced consumption and increased environmental consciousness, I am disgusted by the rampant consumerism in my society. Put simply, we buy so much useless shit that we do not need. The fact that there are factories dedicated to churning out garbage as useless as single-use Hallowe’en and Christmas decorations is pathetic. How can we even pretend to be interested in making an effort on the more “essential” items, such as food (packaging) and transportation (pollution, public transportation) when we can’t even stop ourselves from producing and buying tonnes and tonnes of useless crap that services no practical purpose?


So, there you have it: what was supposed to be a well-thought-out article on prolonging the lifespan of old phones became an uneducated eco-friendly rant… but that’s where my head’s at, at this point!

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