For many people a smartphone is indispensable—as necessary as food and water. Others, however, may not see the appeal. According to CNBC, for example, Warren Buffett used a flip phone for years before finally upgrading to an iPhone in 2020. This raises an important question: Is a smartphone a necessity in 2021? There are several strong arguments to be made in favor of smartphones being a requirement, though affording one may not be realistic for everyone.

Key Takeaways

  • An estimated 85% of Americans use a smartphone, according to Pew Research.
  • Smartphones can be necessary for a variety of reasons, ranging from online security to gaining entry to beaches and other recreational areas to riding public transportation.
  • Owning a smartphone may be challenging for lower-income households, though there are programs that can provide financial assistance.
  • As more people live digitally, it stands to reason that smartphones will only become more important in the future.

Smartphone Ownership and Use

Smartphone ownership has grown tremendously over the last decade. According to the Pew Research Center, 35% of Americans owned a smartphone in 2011. As of 2021 that figure has grown to 85%.

Men and women tend to own smartphones in equal numbers, though Americans under 65 are more likely to have one. Ninety-six percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 own a smartphone, versus 61% of adults aged 65 or older. Smartphone users also tend to live in urban areas, rather than suburban or rural, have a college degree, and make $75,000 a year or more.

So for what, exactly, are people using their smartphones? Some of the most common uses include:

  • Checking social media
  • Playing games or using other apps
  • Making phone calls or texting

Aside from that, people can also use smartphones to pay bills, check bank account balances, manage their budgets, send money to friends and family, or shop online at their favorite stores. The typical person checks their phone every five minutes, and 75.4% of Americans consider themselves to be addicted to their phones. Still, does that mean they’re necessary?

15%

The percentage of Americans who rely on their smartphone as their only source of internet access at home, according to the Pew Research Center

The Case for Smartphones as a Requirement

It’s easy to say that smartphones are a luxury rather than a necessity. After all, people managed to live without them for centuries. Nevertheless, that dismisses a number of changes that have taken place in how people work and live.

Smartphones in the workplace

The increasingly digital nature of the workplace presents the first example of why smartphones should be considered a requirement rather than an option. As more companies use cloud technology to store information and online platforms to keep workers connected, it presents a need for enhanced security protections. Innovations such as two-factor authentication (2FA), also known as “multi-factor authentication (MFA),” make that possible.

MFA allows employees, including remote workers, to securely access digital platforms by entering a code, and a key requirement for using it is a smartphone. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove an uptick in work-from-home activity, 49% of companies reported introducing MFA to secure information.

Employees who are interested in remote work and independent contractors who work from home will likely need smartphones. Security aside, smartphones can also be vital for staying connected with work through messaging apps or tools such as Zoom.

If your employer requires you to have a smartphone for work that you pay for, ask whether any of those expenses are reimbursable.

Smartphones for recreation and travel

Smartphones could also be considered a requirement if you travel or engage in recreational activities. For example, the state of New Jersey now issues beach access badges through the Viply app. This allows travelers and tourists to bypass otherwise long wait lines to get seasonal, daily, or weekly beach passes.

Disney World visitors can download an app that allows them to reserve and pay for contactless dining, navigate the park, and access MagicBand features. The app also features direct-to-room services when staying at Disney Resort Hotels.

Aside from those types of apps, there are other apps that can make travel easier. For example, if you’re catching a flight, your airline may give you the option to download a mobile boarding pass so you can skip the check-in lines. More chain hotels are also offering mobile apps that let you check in and check out via your smartphone instead of the front desk.

The New York City Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) is planning to replace fare cards for subways and buses with the OMNY payment system by 2023. Using it will require either a contactless credit, debit, or prepaid card or a smartphone or smartwatch equipped with a digital wallet. If you don’t have one or the other, you won’t be able to ride public transportation in NYC.

Smartphones for healthcare

Healthcare is another area where smartphones are becoming increasingly important. Telehealth apps, for instance, allow people to chat with a physician live without leaving home. These types of apps could be vital for someone who has ongoing health issues but can’t always visit a doctor in person. You can also use a laptop or desktop for telehealth, of course.

But you can't use one if you want a vaccine passport. These are also becoming more common as the number of people receiving COVID-19 vaccinations increases. In New York state, for example, residents can show proof of vaccination through the Excelsior Pass.

While vaccine passports have not been mandated at a national level—and some states are choosing to opt out of requiring them—they may be necessary to gain entry at private venues. For example, you may need to show proof of vaccination to gain entry to sporting events, concerts, Broadway theaters, and college campuses. In those situations a smartphone would be a requirement for using a vaccine passport app.

Showing proof of vaccination may be a requirement when traveling internationally to countries outside the U.S.

Affording the Cost of a Smartphone

While you could reasonably say that a smartphone is a necessity for many people, affording them isn’t always easy. Smartphones can bring with them a number of costs, including:

  • The cost of purchasing the phone itself
  • Accessories, such as Bluetooth earpieces and car chargers
  • Insurance protection plans
  • Monthly service

On average in 2020 the typical cellphone plan cost $113 per month. The global average smartphone selling price is $363 in 2021, and premium smartphone models can cost $1,000 or more. For someone who’s living on a tight budget, those numbers can be daunting. Thus, in addition to asking whether a smartphone is a requirement in 2021, it’s also important to ask how the average person can afford to pay for it.

Some of the best ways to save money on cellphone service include:

  • Buying a used phone instead of a new one
  • Opting for prepaid phone service in lieu of a contract plan
  • Choosing the lowest smartphone service plan possible
  • Sharing the cost with others through a family plan

Leasing a smartphone could also save money and afford another benefit: the ability to upgrade to a new phone every year or so. In that sense, leasing a phone is similar to leasing a car. When the lease term ends, you can choose a new phone, keep the one you have and sign a new lease, or buy the phone outright.

Smartphone financing may be an option if you want to buy a phone to own. You can find it through retailers such as Best Buy, cellphone service providers, cellphone manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple, or through buy now, pay later (BNPL) platforms. With BNPL you’re getting a point of sale installment loan instead of using a traditional installment loan or credit card. Any of these options might be worth exploring if you’re looking for a way to finance a phone purchase while saving money on interest.

If you’re interested in BNPL options such as Klarna or Affirm, be sure to compare financing terms and credit requirements first to find the best fit.

The Bottom Line

If you use a smartphone regularly, you may not give much thought to how central a role it plays in your day-to-day life. Whether you view smartphones as a necessity or not, it’s clear that dependence on them continues to increase at work, at home, and while traveling. Affording a smartphone is possible, though it may require some planning to find a phone and service plan that align with your budget.