MONEY Health Care

Here is How Much the Government Will Pay to Help You Buy Obamacare

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The Supreme Court decided that health care subsidies should remain available to everyone who buys Obamacare plans

Today the Supreme Court decided that Americans who buy health insurance on Healthcare.gov are eligible for subsidies to help them pay their premiums.

The decision shines a bright light on the oft-forgotten linchpin that holds the sweeping 2010 health care law together: The federal government is handing people significant amounts of money to pay their premiums.

Under the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, those who don’t have health insurance can buy plans on government-run marketplaces or “exchanges.” States may either set up their own marketplaces or opt to use the federal government’s marketplace, available on Healthcare.gov. Then, the government provides subsidies to help people afford the healthcare premiums.

The court case was about whether the law said the subsidies applied in states that didn’t set up their own exchanges. (The argument was over how to read one clause in the legislation.) The Supreme Court decided that health care subsidies should remain available to everyone who buys Obamacare plans.

The subsidies make a huge difference to the people who receive them: On the federal exchange, they’re worth an average of $272 a month.

Use this calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation to see how much an Obamacare plan would cost you, and how much is covered by the subsidies:

And a lot of people qualify: 87% of people who bought Obamacare plans on the federal exchange got a subsidy. Anyone who makes up to 400% of the poverty line is eligible. In 2015, families of four that earned $95,400 made the cutoff.

Policymakers will continue to debate whether the subsidies are accomplishing the goal of making health care affordable. The Government Accountability Office recently found that subsidies “likely contributed to an expansion of health insurance coverage in 2014.” But it’s not like health insurance premiums are cheap, even with financial assistance from the government. After all, Americans who get health insurance at work pay less, on average: $90 a month for single coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s up from just $27 a month 15 years ago.

And by the way, workplace coverage is (indirectly) subsidized by the government too, in the form of a tax break that makes it very attractive for companies to offer.

MONEY Health Care

9 Numbers That Explain the Supreme Court’s Latest Obamacare Case

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Rafe Swan—Getty Images

And how it might affect your wallet, whether or not you use Obamacare.

Any day now, the Supreme Court will make a decision that could change how much you pay for healthcare—and how much you pay in taxes.

Under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, Americans without health insurance can buy coverage from government-run marketplaces, or “exchanges.” The ACA also offers subsidies to help middle-class and low-income Americans afford their monthly health care premiums. Some states set up their own health insurance marketplaces, and some piggybacked off the federal government’s exchange.

The case before the Supreme Court hinges on a part of the law that says the subsidies are only available to Americans who buy health insurance “through an Exchange established by the State.” But what about Americans who bought health insurance through the exchange established by the federal government, Healthcare.gov? That’s up to the Supreme Court to decide. Legislators say this clause was just a “drafting error”, and Americans who bought insurance on the federal exchange are eligible for subsidies, too. But the plaintiffs say the law clearly states that only state exchanges can offer subsidies.

If the high court sides with the plaintiffs, millions of Americans who bought health insurance on the federal exchange will need to pay more for health insurance every month. Here are the key stats to know:

37

The number of states that could be directly affected. Only 13 states (and D.C.) are running their own exchanges. (Click here to see if your state could be affected.) That means that citizens in more than half of all states could lose access to Obamacare subsidies if the Supreme Court decides that subsidies are only available to Americans who buy insurance “through an Exchange operated by the State.”

The 34 states with “federally-facilitated marketplaces” are at the most risk, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But another three states — Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon — have “supported state-based marketplaces,” meaning they tried to set up their own exchanges but now use Healthcare.gov because of technical problems with their own systems. It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court decision will affect those states, according to the Rio Grande Foundation. Also, while another three states with federally-facilitated marketplaces plan to set up their own state exchanges in 2016 —Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Delaware — the marketplaces will not be operational by the time the Supreme Court decides.

6.4 million

The number of Americans who could lose their Obamacare subsidies. As of March 2015, that’s how many Americans bought subsidized Obamacare plans in states with federally-facilitated marketplaces, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services. Altogether, 7.3 million Americans bought insurance from federal exchanges, but not all qualified for subsidies.

$3,156

The average amount of the subsidy. Here’s how Obamacare subsidies work: If you make between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty line, you pay between 2.01% to 9.56% of your income for premiums. The government makes up the difference between what you contribute and the market price of the second lowest cost silver plan in your area. In 2015, the average subsidy nationwide was $263 per person per month, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, or $3,156 a year.

Technically, the subsidy is a tax credit. You can choose either to pay less for your premiums every month or to receive a lump sum refund at the end of the year. But if you overestimate your income when you sign up for Obamacare and you opt to receive a discount on your premiums every month, you may have to pay back part of your subsidy at tax time. If you underestimate, you can get a bigger tax refund.

$101

Average amount that people who receive subsidies pay for health insurance every month. With a $263 subsidy, the average American pays just $101 for premiums every month, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The subsidy keeps Obamacare premiums roughly in line with employer-provided health insurance: Employees pay $90 a month on average for single coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Obamacare costs vary significantly by state. Subsidy recipients in Alabama pay just $52 a month for their premiums, while those in Ohio pay $145 a month.

$95,400

The most a family of four can make and still be eligible for an Obamacare subsidy. Subsidies aren’t just for the poorest of the poor. Americans with incomes up to four times the poverty line can qualify for an Obamacare subsidy to help them pay for premiums. This year, 400% of the poverty line for a family of four was $95,400, according to Healthcare.gov. Individuals making up to $46,680 a year also qualify.

87%

The percent of people who shopped on the federal marketplace who qualified for a subsidy. The vast majority of Americans who bought Obamacare plans qualified for financial assistance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Again, some states are getting more help than others. Some 93% of Floridians with Obamacare plans got a subsidy.

55%

How much Obamacare premiums are projected to rise in the effected states if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs. Even if you bought a plan under Obamacare but don’t receive a subsidy, you could end up paying more for health insurance. The Urban Institute says that if the Supreme Court dismantles the financial assistance available for Americans who enroll through the federal marketplace, many people will be forced to give up their insurance. And a disproportionate number of those who remain, the Urban Institute predicts, will be those who most desperately need health insurance—in other words, the very sick. As a result, insurers will need to raise all premiums in order to pay the medical bills of the sick people who remain in the insurance pool. Ultimately, the Urban Institute estimates, 70% of enrollees will leave the pool. (Remember that 87% of enrollees receive subsidies.) In an earlier analysis, the Rand Corporation predicted that premiums could rise 47%.

300,000

The number of employees projected to lose their employer-subsidized health insurance if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs. Another section of the Affordable Care Act is built on the tax credit: The employer mandate. As of this year, large employers have to provide health insurance benefits or pay a fine. The thing is, large employers owe the penalty only if a) they do not provide quality health insurance to 95% of their full-time employees, and b) at least one of their full-time employees buys a plan on the marketplace and receives a subsidy. Which means that if a state has no subsidies, it has no employer mandate.

As a result, a Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report predicted that if there were no employer mandate, some employers would stop offering health insurance. As of June 2015, the Urban Institute projects that 300,000 employees will lose their health coverage if the Supreme Court strikes down subsidies in 34 states. (In a separate analysis, the Rand Corporation expects that 300,000 people would lose their employer-subsidized insurance without an employer mandate, but predicts that nearly all of those people would find coverage elsewhere.)

8.2 million

The number of Americans projected to become uninsured if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs. While only 6.4 million Americans are projected to lose their subsidies, the Urban Institute projects that 8.2 million will become uninsured. Here’s why: More people will drop their insurance if premiums spike, others will lose their employer-provided insurance, and some will lose their Medicaid coverage as states give up more federal funding. (In an older report, the Rand Corporation predicted that 8 million would become uninsured.) So the Supreme Court’s decision could have a big impact on a lot of people, not just the 6.4 million who receive the subsidies in question.

MONEY cellphone plans

Here’s How to Figure Out How Much Cellphone Data You Need

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Brent Lewin—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Do you use more cellular data than the average person?

As smartphones have gotten more powerful, users have gotten hungrier for more and more high-speed cellular data. In just the past 18 months, average data consumption has more than doubled, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. But how do you know how much data you really need? Buy too much and you’re wasting money. Buy too little and you could owe overage fees or your data speeds could be “throttled,” or slowed to the point of uselessness. Here’s what to ask to pick the right data package for today’s world:

“How much data am I using now?”

The best way to gauge your needs is to check your phone bills, which should tell you how much data you use each month. The average smartphone owner nowadays uses 2.9GB, reports NPD Group. But light users don’t need much: Thirty percent of smartphone owners currently use 500MB.

“How much are my kids using?”

Between streaming Netflix, checking Facebook, and posting to Instagram, young people run through data more quickly. While the average customer 55 or older needs just 1.4GB a month, the average young adult uses more than double that. If your kids are on your family plan, you may need to budget for more gigabytes.

“Can I conserve more data?”

Now that free public Wi-Fi networks have become more common, you don’t always need cellular data to access the Internet on your phone. Instead, the average smartphone user consumes a whopping 11.3GB of Wi-Fi data every month, up from just 5GB a year and a half ago. If you can connect to Wi-Fi much of the time, switch to Virgin Mobile’s Wi-Fi Lovers Delight plan or a “Wi-Fi first” plan, or just buy a traditional plan with a smaller data package.

“Am I using my phone as a television?”

That’s a surefire way to run through your data allotment. Fifty to sixty percent of all data consumption arises from video and social media, estimates the NPD Group’s Brad Akyuz. Streaming media services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus are big data drains, he says. But if you’re mostly watching YouTube, 5GB will probably suffice.

“Do I really need unlimited data?”

Unlimited data plans are back again at Sprint, T-Mobile, and MetroPCS—but unless you’re a Netflix junkie (see the prior answer), you probably don’t need one. Unlimited plans are like restaurant buffets, says Jon Colgan of CellBreaker, a startup that helps people get out of their cellphone contracts: “Most people don’t eat as much as they think they’re going to eat.” Plus, carriers have pledged to notify customers before imposing overage charges, so data fees shouldn’t take you by surprise. Before you buy an unlimited plan, make sure you can’t find a cheaper plan already offering more data than you need.

Find the Best Cellphone Plan For You

“Is this data plan really unlimited?”

Read advertisements for cellphone service plans carefully. Some carriers promising “unlimited data” will actually limit your high-speed, 4G LTE data to a couple of gigabytes per month. Once you use up that allotment, you’ll have unlimited access to slower data—but you’ll have trouble loading pages quickly and streaming video. Usually, carriers will explain when plans have a high-speed data limit, but the FTC just imposed a $100 million fine on AT&T for allegedly slowing data speeds on grandfathered unlimited plans without telling customers. Make sure you’ll get what you pay for.

Read next: The Best Cellphone Plans of 2015

This story has been adapted from “Find Your Perfect Cell Plan,” originally published in MONEY magazine’s July 2015 issue.

MONEY cellphone plans

5 Reasons You Should Be Paying Less for Your Cellphone Plan

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Tim Robberts—Getty Images

Plus tips on making that happen.

Are you getting hit with data overage charges? Dropped calls? Huge monthly bills for your family plan? Don’t put up with that anymore.

This is your moment to find a better, cheaper smartphone plan. “There are more deals to be had now than there have ever been,” says Logan Abbott, president of plan comparison site Wirefly.com. Here’s why:

1. We’re in the midst of a price war.

Carriers are slashing prices and fattening data packages in an attempt to steal you away from your current wireless provider—or keep you from leaving. Even at Verizon, which has long charged a premium for its top-rated network, you can buy 15GB of data for what it cost to buy a 10GB package a year ago. “In the last year or so, the data bucket prices have gone down significantly across the board,” says Brad Akyuz, research director of Connected Intelligence at the NPD Group market research firm. “You really have competition driven by T-Mobile and Sprint pushing prices down significantly.”

2. You have other carrier options.

You can look beyond the “big four”—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—to find deals at lesser-known carriers. Think of them as the generic drugs of wireless service. Some carriers, such as Straight Talk and Net10, buy bandwidth from the big four, offering you access to the same network at a big discount. Others, such as MetroPCS and Boost Mobile, are discount brands owned by the big four. “A lot of them can give you similar plans for a lot less,” says Tara Donnelly, U.S. editor at WhistleOut, a plan comparison site.

On some small carriers, your data might run slightly slower when a lot of people are using the network, says Dennis Bournique of PrepaidPhoneNews.com. But recent mergers and acquisitions should work in your favor. In recent years, AT&T bought smaller carrier Cricket while T-Mobile bought MetroPCS, letting the bigger names acquire wireless spectrum and attract value-conscious customers. “The fact that these larger companies own these smaller carriers means they have that responsibility to make sure that service is up to snuff,” says Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecom services at J.D. Power.

3. You can save if you dump your two-year service contract.

In the past, when you went to get a new cellphone plan, you usually had to sign a two-year contract promising to stick it out with the same carrier, or else pay hundreds of dollars in early termination fees. But you’d feel okay about it because you’d get a really cheap phone—for example, a $200 iPhone that was really worth $650.

But what you might not have known is that you were always paying off the full cost of that expensive phone, in the form of higher monthly bills. Nowadays you can choose non-contract plans with lower monthly bills and pay separately for the full cost of the phone. That’s okay, because plans without service contracts are almost always a better deal over a two-year period. These monthly plans are getting more popular and are slowly replacing two-year service contracts altogether: T-Mobile no longer offers service contracts, and more than half of the new customers on Sprint and AT&T have already ditched them.

4. You can do a lot on Wi-Fi.

The mobile trend to watch? “Wi-Fi first” coverage. For calling, texting, or using the Internet, carriers attempt to connect you to the nearest Wi-Fi network before falling back on a cellular network. Since cellular usage is lighter, your monthly payments can be lower than even our best pick for infrequent callers. For example, carriers like FreedomPop and Republic Wireless offer plans that range from free to $40.

If you have reliable access to Wi-Fi at work or home and aren’t looking for extra features like cloud storage, then a Wi-Fi first plan could be good. But when you’re on a call, the transition between Wi-Fi and cellular isn’t always seamless, so moving around can disrupt your service. “Wi-Fi has become so widespread, it’s not insane to think that it could rival cellular in terms of coverage—but not quality,” says IDC senior research analyst Brian Haven.

Despite its shortcomings, Wi-Fi got a lot of attention this spring when Google launched Project Fi, a service that analyzes signal strength from Sprint, T-Mobile, and Wi-Fi before connecting you to the strongest option. Plans start at $20 a month, plus $10 for every gigabyte of data you want to purchase.

5. It pays to know what’s out there.

Cellphone plans have become much more complicated. So while deals are everywhere, they can be hard to understand. Do you want your family to share a pool of data or do you want to give each line its own allotment? How much data do you actually need? If you ditch the monthly contract, do you want to pay upfront for your phone, lease it, or pay it off in monthly installments? “With the rise of the device installment plans, it’s become even more confusing than it used to be,” says Philip Goldstein, editor of FierceWireless.

That’s where MONEY comes in. We pored over the fine print on more than 70 cellphone plans at 10 different cellphone carriers. We considered the full two-year cost of each plan, including the price of phones. We also checked each carrier’s network quality and customer satisfaction ratings. Here’s our guide to the best cellphone plans of 2015. And for more customized guidance, head on over to our interactive tool, which will show you the most affordable plans that meet your particular needs, plus the network performance you can expect in your area.

This story has been adapted from “Find Your Perfect Cell Plan,” originally published in MONEY magazine’s July 2015 issue.

Read next: The Best Cellphone Plans of 2015

MONEY mobile service

The Best Cellphone Plans of 2015

MONEY found the right plan, at the right price, for every type of cellphone user.

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Getting hit with data overage charges? Is your family’s cellphone bill busting your budget? Now you can land a better, cheaper smartphone plan. After studying more than 70 plans from 10 different wireless carriers, we picked the best plans for every kind of user.

For a more personalized recommendation based on your specific needs, check out MONEY’s Cellphone Plan Picking Tool.

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  • Best For Light Users

    Ryan Snook

    Best for individuals:
    Boost Mobile Data Boost 1GB

    Best for families:
    Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Lovers Delight

    Individual Plan: Boost Mobile Data Boost 1GB Family Plan: Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Lovers Delight
    Monthly service bill $35 $80 ($20 each for four plans)
    Two-year cost with phones $1,390 $3,920
    Can you bring a phone? Sprint only No
    Data 1GB Wi-Fi only
    Data overage? Speed slows Not applicable
    Network Sprint 3G/4G LTE Sprint 3G/4G LTE
    Why it wins Don’t need the bells and whistles of a data-driven plan? This is our pick for bare-bones functions like talk and text, as well as data to cover basic email needs. If you have a data-heavy month, your speeds will be reduced, but you won’t be charged extra. Virgin Mobile is the only carrier here offering sub-$100 service for four lines. Downsides: Each user has only 300 monthly talk minutes (all other plans are unlimited), cellular data isn’t included, and you can’t get an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S6. But customer satisfaction ratings are high.
    You should also know … An iPhone 6 is $100 cheaper than at other carriers. The two-year cost includes a $500 Samsung Galaxy S5 for each user.
    Runner-up The MetroPCS $30/Month plan offers similar options and features for $5 less per month, but iPhones aren’t available. Want an iPhone and just a wee bit of cellular data? T-Mobile Simple Choice offers the iPhone 6 and 1GB per line for $100 a month.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • Best for Typical Users

    Ryan Snook

    Best for individuals:
    Cricket Basic

    Best for families:
    Cricket Basic with Group Save Discount

    Individual Plan: Cricket Basic Family Plan: Cricket Basic With Group Save Discount
    Monthly service bill $40 $100
    Two-year cost with phones $1,610 $5,000
    Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
    Data 2.5GB 2.5GB on each line
    Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
    Network AT&T 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
    Why it wins Cricket uses AT&T’s network, so you get Big Four coverage for only $40 a month. That amount drops to $35 if you enroll in an autopay program. Though the carrier doesn’t offer the iPhone 6, it does have an iPhone 5c, along with other smart and basic phones. The price includes taxes and fees. By offering big discounts when you add other lines, Cricket is also a good deal for the entire family. If you’re worried that 2.5GB isn’t meeting your data needs, you can add 1GB to a line for only $10 per month. As with the individual plan, taxes and fees are included, and an iPhone 6 isn’t offered.
    You should also know … Get a Galaxy S6 for $0 down with a phone payment plan. Sign up for four lines, and service for a fifth phone comes free.
    Runner-up For $5 less a month, get the iPhone 6 with Boost Mobile’s $35 Data Boost Up plan. ­Video streaming, however, can be limited to a slow 3G. Sprint’s Family Share Pack lets you share 8GB of data for $130 a month.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • Best for Bargain Hunters

    Ryan Snook

    Best for individuals:
    Sprint $60 Unlimited

    Best for families:
    Cricket Pro with Group Save Discount

    Individual Plan: Sprint $60 Unlimited Family Plan: Cricket Pro With Group Save Discount
    Monthly service bill $60 $160
    Two-year cost with phones $2,090 $6,440
    Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
    Data Unlimited 10GB on each line
    Data overage? None Speed slows
    Network Sprint 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
    Why it wins “Sprint is positioning itself as the value leader,” says FierceWireless editor Phil Goldstein. Savings, he says, can be even greater than promised by Sprint’s Cut Your Bill in Half promotion. Save further over two years by leasing an iPhone 6 for $20 a month instead of buying one. The 10GB of high-speed data per month should be more than enough for the heaviest users. Anything more would be “a bit extreme,” says Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecom services at J.D. Power.
    You should also know … Sprint will pay your early-termination fee if you hand in your old phone. Get service on a fifth line for another $20 per month.
    Runner-up If Sprint’s network is slow in your area, you can get a $60 Unlimited plan (but no iPhone) from MetroPCS. If you want an iPhone 6, you can go with Sprint’s Unlimited Family plan for an extra $20 a month.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • Best for Power Users

    Ryan Snook

    Best for individuals:
    Verizon More Everything 6GB with Verizon Edge

    Best for families:
    AT&T Mobile Share Value 20GB with AT&T Next 18

    Individual Plan: Verizon More Everything 6GB With Verizon Edge Family Plan: AT&T Mobile Share Value 20GB With AT&T Next 18
    Monthly service bill $85 $210
    Two-year cost with phones $2,690 $7,640
    Can you bring a phone? Yes No
    Data 6GB 20GB shared
    Data overage? $15 per GB $15 per GB
    Network Verizon 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
    Why it wins The RootMetrics mobile analytics firm ranks Verizon first in the nation in overall network performance, reliability, and speed. “Particularly when you talk about the
    advanced technology—4G, 4G LTE—their coverage tends to be broader,” says Parsons.
    AT&T invented “rollover” plans back when users were afraid of getting overage charges for talking too long. Now that data is capped, not talk, you can roll unused gigabytes over to the next month. That can come in handy if the kids decide they want a Star Wars marathon.
    You should also know … New subscribers receive a $100 bill credit for activating a smartphone on Edge. Should you get tired of your phone, you can upgrade it after 18 months.
    Runner-up A two-year contract with AT&T at $110 a month gets you 6GB of data. And AT&T is No. 1 in customer satisfaction, says J.D. Power. Don’t need rollover data? Verizon’s More Everything With Verizon Edge is just $200 a month for 20GB.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • Best for Frequent Upgraders

    Ryan Snook

    Best for individuals:
    Sprint Family Share Pack 2GB with 12-Month Term Lease

    Sprint Family Share Pack 2GB With 12-Month Term Lease
    Monthly service bill $80 (includes phone lease)
    Two-year cost with phones $1,920
    Can you bring a phone? No
    Data 2GB
    Data overage? 1.5¢ per MB
    Network Sprint 4G LTE
    Why it wins An early upgrade plan “is not necessarily financially the best option for everyone,” says Tara Donnelly, U.S. editor at plan comparison site WhistleOut. “But if you like to update your phone regularly, it’s not a bad idea.” Sprint will lease you an iPhone 6 for $30 a month and upgrade you to a new model after a year, costing you 45% less than buying two new iPhones outright. To keep either phone, though, you’ll have to pay extra once its year is up.
    You should also know … Lease an iPhone 6 Plus for $35 a month.
    Runner-up Even if you choose half the data of Sprint’s plan, AT&T Next 12 is more expensive. But AT&T often has first dibs on the newest phones.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • Best for Technology Recyclers

    Ryan Snook

    Best for individuals:
    Straight Talk Unlimited Bring Your Own Phone Promotion

    Straight Talk Unlimited Bring Your Own Phone Promotion
    Monthly service bill $45
    Two-year cost with phones $1,080
    Can you bring a phone? It’s required
    Data 5GB
    Data overage? Speed slows
    Network Multiple 4G LTE
    Why it wins Bring your own device to Straight Talk and get 5GB for $45 a month, or $41.25 if you pay for a year upfront—remarkably low prices. Just call your old carrier and ask it to “unlock” your phone from its network, and then go to straighttalkbyop.com to see if your phone is compatible. Straight Talk says phones from AT&T and T-Mobile should work, as should most Verizon and Sprint phones.
    You should also know … An activation kit or SIM card for getting started runs $5.
    Runner-up If you’ll never use close to 5GB of data and have an AT&T or a T-Mobile phone, move it to Cricket Basic and get 2.5GB of data for $40 a month.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • Best for Data-Hungry Teens

    Ryan Snook

    Best for families:
    T-Mobile Simple Choice 1GB and 5GB Combined

    T-Mobile Simple Choice 1GB and 5GB Combined
    Monthly service bill $140
    Two-year cost with phones $5,960
    Can you bring a phone? Yes
    Data Two lines have 1GB; two have 5GB
    Data overage? Speed slows
    Network T-Mobile 4G LTE
    Why it wins Maybe this describes your family: Mom and Dad need less than a gigabyte, but the kids are sucking up way more data per month. With this plan, data allotments are segregated; if ­Junior’s goes over his allowance, his data is slowed, but no one else’s is. Plus, music streamed via Pandora, Spotify, and more than two dozen ­other services won’t count against your children’s data usage.
    You should also know … You can roll over unused data on the 5GB lines.
    Runner-up If 5GB still isn’t enough, give two kids unlimited lines for just $160 a month.
    Methodology: For all plans we added up the cost of two years of service and a 16BG iPhone 6 for each user (or a Samsung Galaxy S6 if the iPhone wasn’t offered). We looked at both 2-year service contracts and non-contract plans. Family plans are priced for four lines. Winners were chosen on the basis of price, plan features, and ratings for network quality, and customer satisfaction.
  • MONEY’s Plan Picking Tool

    Ryan Snook

    For a more personalized recommendation based on your specific plan needs, check out our Cellphone Plan Picking Tool.

MONEY Health Care

Americans with Obamacare Are Still Afraid of Big Medical Bills

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Walker and Walker—Getty Images

A new survey finds most Americans are satisfied with their Obamacare plans, but they're still worried about one thing.

Americans gave Obamacare plans high marks in a survey out today from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Three-quarters of those enrolled in health plans through the marketplace say they’re satisfied with the choice of primary care doctors, 73% express satisfaction with their doctor’s visit copays, and 65% say they’re satisfied with their premiums. Overall, 40% say they’ve mostly benefitted from the Affordable Care Act, while only a third say they’ve mostly been negatively affected.

But there’s one nagging problem. Even though Americans are generally happy with Obamacare plans, a large minority—38% of marketplace enrollees—say they still “feel vulnerable to high medical bills.” (A similar proportion of people in non-Obamacare plans agree.)

Most alarmingly, Americans enrolled in plans that meet ACA requirements are more likely to struggle with medical bills than Americans enrolled in plans that do not meet ACA requirements. Americans in ACA-compliant plans are also more likely to report skipping care because of cost. Even though the Affordable Care Act outlawed annual and lifetime coverage maximums—the health insurance provisions that saddled the insured with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt and doomed the sick to bankruptcy—more than half of Americans enrolled in ACA-compliant plans say they’re worried they won’t be able to afford the health care services they’ll need in the future.

One culprit may be high deductibles. In a previous survey, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Obamacare silver plan enrollees have an average $3,453 deductible, meaning they need to pay more than $3,000 out-of-pocket before insurance would cover part of the cost. On average, Americans enrolled in bronze plans need to pay more than $5,372 out-of-pocket before insurance kicks in.

Unsurprisingly, people with high-deductible plans, whether ACA-compliant or not, feel more financially vulnerable. Only 7% of Americans on high-deductible plans say their health insurance is an “excellent” value for the cost, compared with 19% of Americans on lower deductible plans. And fewer than a third of Americans on high-deductible plans say they could pay a $1,500 medical bill without borrowing money—which is a problem, because a $1,500 bill is a real possibility with a $3,000-plus deductible.

How to save on medical care:

MONEY Health Care

How to Survive This Awful Allergy Season

pollen written on windshield covered in pollen
Joseph De Sciose—Getty Images/Aurora Creative

Lingering winter cold means pollen levels could rise quickly—and so could your medical costs.

Grab your tissue box. We’re in for a terrible spring allergy season. Experts say that the long winter may cause early-blooming trees to pollinate late this year, which means more trees pollinating at the same time.

About one in five Americans suffer from some kind of allergy, with seasonal allergies the most common, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. While not as severe as food and insect allergies, hay fever can put a real damper on your life—seasonal allergies are responsible for some 4 million missed or lost workdays every year, the National Academy on an Aging Society estimates.

The upside is that if you take your allergies seriously this year, you might feel better and save money. True story: My entire childhood, I had “seasonal” allergies that lasted almost year-round. (For some reason, no one thought this was weird.) As an adult, I finally got tested. I was allergic to my cat. Part of me wishes I didn’t know that, but I don’t have to buy as much Claritin now.

Here’s what allergies could cost you—and how you can save.

Over-the-counter antihistamines: 10¢ to 67¢ a pill

With hay fever, you can burn money on boxes upon boxes of over-the-counter allergy relief like Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. But you can save a ton if you just compare prices online, says Elizabeth Davis, editor-in-chief of GoodRx blog, a prescription savings blog.

“One thing that tends to be worthwhile is going for the non-name brand version,” Davis says. “It looks like you can get [generic Claritin] for as low as $10 for 100 tablets, but I’m generally seeing about $20 or so for a regular box of brand-name Claritin, which has 30 tablets.”

So shop online, save 85%.

Another medication to consider: nasal spray. Nasacort and Flonase were both recently approved for over-the-counter sale, where they cost between $17 and $25 a bottle, Davis says.

Prescription antihistamines: 50¢ to $1.60 a pill

Sometimes, over-the-counter medications won’t be enough to alleviate your symptoms. If you’re still suffering, or if you find yourself relying on Benadryl on a daily basis, it’s time to see an allergist.

While prescription allergy meds are usually more expensive—as low as $15 but as much as $40 or $50 for 30 tablets, Davis estimates—what you pay will depend on your health plan. Doctor visits, tests, and prescriptions are typically covered by health insurance, with a co-payment or co-insurance, after you meet your deductible.

The higher dosages in prescription meds might be what you need to kick your symptoms. A doctor might double, triple, or even quadruple your dose, or advise you to take a combination of antihistamines and decongestants, says Neil Kao, an allergist in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.

“When you go the doctor, you might say, ‘Well, I took Claritin, and it didn’t work,'” Kao says. “The doctor might say you need two—one in the morning, one at night. You might say, ‘The box says one.’ Well, that’s why I went to medical school!”

Also, while prescription generic Nasacort nasal spray costs more—typically $50 to $75 a bottle—and prescription generic Flonase costs less—usually $12 to $17—the prescription versions could be a better deal than over-the-counter versions if you have a low co-pay, Davis says. Talk to your doctor and check your plan.

Allergy testing: $30 to $275

Once you’ve spent serious money on allergy medicine, you may want to know if you’re on the right track, Kao says. Are you sneezing because there’s pollen in the air, or because you have a cold, or because your cat is shedding his winter coat? With a simple skin test, an allergist can determine what, if anything, you are allergic to.

According to HealthSparq, a health costs transparency firm, an office visit with an allergist typically runs $200 to $300 before insurance. Those estimates are based on insurer-negotiated prices on claims filed in Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Idaho.

From there, the cost of the allergy tests can vary from $30 to $275, and even as high as $4,000, depending on the type and number of tests given, according to HealthSparq. Pro tip: 77% of large employers offer a price transparency tool, according to Mercer, so you can get your own individualized price estimate.

Immunotherapy: $15 to $20 a session

After you know what you’re allergic to, allergy shots are another treatment option. Here’s how it works: Your allergist uses a skin test to decide which allergens to put in your shots, which slowly expose you to your allergens to get your immune tolerance back up to normal, Kao explains.

Kao recommends shots for sufferers with moderate to severe allergies who either do not get enough relief from medications or who do not want to take medications any longer. “Statistically, [shots] help about 90% of well-selected people,” Kao says.

HealthSparq estimates that it typically costs $15 to $20 a visit before insurance kicks in, but could be as high as $170 a visit, depending on your course of treatment.

However, Kao says that in the long term, allergy shots pay for themselves. Think of the money you won’t be spending on over-the-counter medications, prescriptions, antibiotics for sinus infections, and doctor’s visits. “That’s all money saved,” Kao says.

EpiPens: $450 to $500 for a two-pack

Pollen means something else for people with bee sting allergies: It’s time to carry an EpiPen again. EpiPens—or epipnephrine auto-injectors—provide immediate relief to anyone suffering from anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal allergic reaction. The pen is inserted into the middle of the thigh while a patient awaits professional medical attention.

Unfortunately, the price of EpiPens have increased significantly in the past several years. Davis of GoodRX Blog estimates a two-pack could run about $450 to $500 before insurance.

Coupons can help. At EpiPen.com you can apply for discounted epinephrine pens. Many patients with private health insurance can get the EpiPen two-pack for free, and everyone else can get $100 off, says Davis.

Alternately, you can get a generic epinephrine pen for $250 to $300, but you’ll need to ask your doctor to write a prescription specifically for the generic, Davis says.

Update: This article was updated to indicate the correct use of an EpiPen.

MONEY Health Care

Why Young Millennials Are Turning Down Health Coverage at Work

150414_FF_MILLHEALTHCOVERAGE
Getty Images—Getty Images I don't need health insurance, boss. I've got my mom's plan.

Thanks to Obamacare, they can probably get cheaper health insurance from mom and dad.

New college grads want a job, but they can take or leave the health insurance benefits that come with it. Less than half of all eligible employees under age 26 enrolled in an employer-provided health plan in 2015, according to a new report out today from the ADP Research Institute.

But don’t worry about the rest. Under the Affordable Care Act, young adults are allowed to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26. And that’s probably what many are doing, says Chris Ryan, vice president of strategic advisory services at ADP. “There are lot of people who do value health coverage very much, but they want to stay on their parents’ plan as long as possible,” Ryan says.

Why Young Workers Have More Options

The provision that lets young adults keep their parents’ health insurance until age 26 has been one of the most popular parts of Obamacare. It was also one of the first provisions to go into effect. Between September 2010 and December 2011, more than 3 million adults aged 19 to 25 got private health insurance largely thanks to the ACA, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

A lot has changed since 2011. More millennials have entered the workforce, and a greater number have become eligible for health benefits. Today, 83% of employees under 26 are eligible for health insurance at work, up 8.5% from five years ago. Still, fewer millennials have actually enrolled in their employers’ plans. In 2011, almost 57% of young millennials who were eligible for employer-subsidized health coverage took it; this year, only 44% did.

One sign that many of these young adults are ditching their employer’s plans for their family’s plan: Once employees are too old to stay their parents’ plans, they’re much more likely to sign up for employer coverage. Three-quarters of eligible employees aged 26 to 39 enrolled in an employer health plan, the survey found.

Happily, after widespread concerns that young people would not sign up for health insurance, the vast majority are now covered one way or another. Nationally, 83.2% of Americans aged 18 to 25 now have health insurance, up from 76.5% in the last quarter of 2014, according to a recent Gallup poll. Today, there are 4.5 million more insured young adults who would not otherwise had coverage, according to the White House.

When Mom and Dad’s Plan Has the Edge

For millennials just starting out, however, health insurance premiums can still eat up a large part of their meager incomes. ADP found that employees earning $15,000 to $20,000 spent 9.5% of their annual income on premiums. Employees earning $45,000 to $50,000 devoted 5.8% of their income to premiums, while employees earning more than $120,000 spent just 2.3% of their income on premiums.

So even if young millennials have jobs with health benefits, the family plan is often the better deal. “Most millennials in their early 20s have entry-level salaries, so it’s attractive for our generation to get on a parent’s comprehensive plan for health and financial security,” writes Erin Hemlin, health care campaign director of Young Invincibles, a millennial research and advocacy group.

ADP found that individual premiums cost $486 a month, on average. But add two or more dependents to the plan, and premiums cost an average of $1,377 a month—which, split three or four ways, is less than an individual plan.

“There’s no question—it is usually cheaper for someone to be an additional dependent rather than pay for single coverage,” Ryan says. And then there are the tax benefits. “Because the premiums are on a pre-tax basis and parents are usually in a higher income bracket than their children, the parents are getting a better tax break, and the insurance overall is cheaper,” Ryan says.

Still, there are downsides to staying on a parent’s plan. If you don’t live near your parents, make sure you can find local doctors that are in your parents’ insurance network before you turn down health benefits at work. And consider if you want your bills and explanation of benefit statements mailed to your parents. Not sure what to do? Here’s more on how to decide— or shop for an individual plan on your own if you’re not getting coverage at work.

MONEY Taxes

These Are the People Who Are Most Likely to Get Audited

woman on balcony of modern house
Getty Images The uber-rich have the most to fear when it comes to tax audits.

As tax season draws to a close, you may be wondering if you're at risk. (Hint: Probably not.)

If Tax Day has you worrying about an IRS audit, you probably have little reason to be nervous. Last year, the IRS audited less than 1% of all taxpayers—and the federal agency is on track to audit even fewer people this year.

“The math is pretty simple. There are fewer audits because we have fewer auditors,” IRS commissioner John A. Koskinen told the New York State Bar Association in February. “The IRS lost more than 2,200 revenue agents since 2010. Last year alone, there were 600 fewer auditors, with the total falling to 11,600—the lowest level in more than a decade.”

Still, some Americans are subject to more scrutiny than others. The IRS doesn’t spell out why auditors single out some returns for special treatment, but a look at the agency’s track record provides some clues. Here are the groups that are more likely to get the government’s attention:

1. People who report more than $10 million in income—or none at all

It’s like the old saying about why the bank robber robbed the bank: “Because that’s where the money is.” With limited resources, the IRS takes a harder look at people with the most money (and the most to hide). In 2010, then-commissioner Doug Shulman told the New York State Bar Association targeting the rich was part of a new strategy to “work smarter.”

“This is a game-changing strategy for the IRS,” Shulman said. “Initially, we will be focusing on individuals with tens of millions of dollars of assets or income. Going forward, we will take a unified look at the entire complex web of business entities controlled by a high wealth individual, which will enable us to better assess the risk such arrangements pose to tax compliance.”

In 2014, the IRS audited more than 16% of returns reporting more than $10 million in income. But, as you can see in the table below, single-digit millionaires should take care with their tax returns as well.

Another group with a high-than-average chance of getting audited? People who report no income. If you’re reporting an operating loss on your business, the IRS might double check that you’re being honest. In 2014, the IRS audited 5.3% of the taxpayers who reported no income.

Otherwise, if you—like the majority of American taxpayers—earn between $25,000 and $200,000, you have a better-than-average shot of dodging an IRS audit. Here’s the breakdown:

Returns by Income

Percent of total returns

Percent audited in 2014

All returns 100% 0.86%
No adjusted gross income 1.83% 5.26%
$1 – $24,999 39.08% 0.93%
$25,000 – $49,999 23.32% 0.54%
$50,000 – $74,999 13.12% 0.53%
$75,000 – $99,999 8.33% 0.52%
$100,000 – $199,999 10.70% 0.65%
$200,000 – $499,999 2.87% 1.75%
$500,000 – $1 million 0.48% 3.62%
$1 million – $5 million 0.24% 6.21%
$5 million – $10 million 0.02% 10.53%
Over $10 million 0.01% 16.22%

Source: Internal Revenue Service Data Book, 2014

2. People who file estate tax returns for assets worth more than $5 million

Likewise, a huge estate tax return could raise some eyebrows at the IRS. Overall, 8.5% of estate tax returns were singled out for special scrutiny in 2014, way more than the 0.9% of individual tax returns.

And the bigger the estate, the more likely the IRS flagged the return for an audit. More than 21% of estate tax returns with assets between $5 million and $10 million were audited in 2014, and 27% of returns with assets worth over $10 million were audited.

However, estate tax returns are pretty rare: The IRS received 33,719 in 2013, and only 3,359 of those were for estates worth $10 million or more.

3. People who file international returns

If you’re mailing your return from the Cayman Islands, you can bet that the IRS is onto you. Over the past several years, the IRS has increased scrutiny of international returns.

“On the individual front, we have made putting a big dent in offshore tax evasion a major priority,” Shulman told the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in 2012. “We view offshore tax evasion as an issue of fundamental fairness. Wealthy people who unlawfully hide their money offshore aren’t paying the taxes they owe, while schoolteachers, firefighters and other ordinary citizens who play by the rules are forced to pick up the slack and foot the bill.”

In 2014, the IRS audited 4.8% of international returns.

But there’s a cost to fewer audits

Law-abiding citizens have little reason to celebrate the limited number of tax audits. Koskinen expects that, thanks to federal budget cuts, the IRS will lose out on at least $2 billion in revenue that auditors would otherwise be able to collect. Plus, sometimes when the government takes a second look at your return, you get more money back: In 2014, the IRS decided 38,029 individual filers had paid too much in taxes and sent them additional refunds.

Related:

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