Hello and welcome to Financial Face-off, a MarketWatch column where we help you weigh a financial decision. Our columnist will give her verdict. Tell us whether you think she’s right in the comments. And please share your suggestions for future Financial Face-off columns by emailing our columnist at email@example.com.
Fall is almost here, but if you follow the consumer calendar this period is better known as pumpkin-spice latte season at Starbucks
and new iPhone season at Apple
The PSL is now 20 years old and the iPhone is 16, but every year, Starbucks and Apple try to get you to fall in love all over again with their headline-grabbing products.
The nutmeg-coated latte will cost you at least $6.45 for a grande in New York City. The latest iPhone 15 starts at $799 for the basic model, $899 for the 15 Plus, $999 for the Pro and $1,199 for the Pro Max, the company said when it unveiled the product lineup Tuesday.
“These are the best and most capable iPhones we’ve ever made,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said.
If you’re an iPhone owner nearing the end of a two-year cell phone contract, there’s a good chance you have an iPhone 13. How does the iPhone 15 stack up against the iPhone 13, and is it time to upgrade?
Why it matters
If you take Apple’s word for it, upgrading matters because of all the new features the company trumpeted at Tuesday’s event, including the iPhone 15’s “all-day” battery life (Apple didn’t say how many hours this means); the fastest smartphone chip “ever” for the 15 Pro and Pro Max; a “state-of-the-art telephoto camera” on the 15 Pro Max; a lightweight yet thinner and more durable titanium casing on the Pro and Pro Max models; and satellite-powered roadside assistance through AAA on all iPhone 15 models.
Are those enhancements enough to justify spending the cost of a laptop or vacation on a phone? With inflation still driving higher prices on everyday essentials, shoppers may be reluctant to rush out to buy the new iPhone, even though Apple kept the prices the same as last year on three of the iPhone 15 models. Some 37% of consumers say they plan to get the latest iPhone this year; that’s up from 29% in 2021, according to surveys by WalletHub.
When deciding whether to upgrade, first sit down and think about how you use your phone, said Nicholas De Leon, a tech expert at Consumer Reports. “If you’re someone who doesn’t use it for much, if you scroll through Instagram
and then text your husband, I don’t know that you need a new phone to do that,” he told MarketWatch before the Apple product launch. But if you’re a TikTok influencer whose livelihood depends on churning out high-quality videos, the upgrade could make sense.
“The iPhone 15’s improvements won’t change the lives of typical iPhone users, but paying off debt will.”
As for the 13 vs. the 15, one of the most notable differences (other than the new type of charging port) is that the 15 has the “Dynamic Island,” a mini control hub on the phone’s home screen that shows you information such as what song you’re listening to, or who’s calling you. Apple described this feature as “magical.”
De Leon is not convinced: “Is that enough to rush out and upgrade?” he asked. “Ehh. The Dynamic Island is neat but not what I would call transformative. But it’s a nice bonus if you do upgrade this year.”
Both the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max have ProMotion display, which was only available previously on the 13 Pro. It makes animation and other movements appear much smoother, which could be important to you if you’re a gamer.
The iPhone 15 also has a faster chip, which amounts to a “decent, if not mind-blowing upgrade” over the iPhone 13, according to the product-review site Tom’s Guide. iPhone shoppers who want to upgrade from an iPhone 13 but don’t want to spring for an iPhone 15 may want to consider buying the iPhone 14 Pro, according to Tom’s Guide, because it has most of the same improvements, with the exception of the USB-C charging port.
Skip running out to buy the iPhone 15. Now is not the time. Many households are on shaky financial ground. Credit-card debt is at a record high, and student-loan payments are about to start up again. The iPhone 15’s improvements won’t change the lives of typical iPhone users, but paying off debt will.
There was a time when getting the newest iPhone made a much bigger difference for the average iPhone user. Early iPhone users couldn’t even copy and paste on their phones. At this point the annual changes are pretty incremental. But Apple still uses its annual event to drum up media coverage and influence its stock price. This year the latter didn’t happen; Apple shares slipped after Tuesday’s event.
The typical phone user is probably better off ignoring the hype and making a decision based on their needs. “They’ve always been good at the razzle dazzle showmanship aspect of this,” De Leon said. “But I just look at ordinary folks in my life and feedback from readers, about what people are doing with their phones. ‘Not much’ is kind of the answer.”
“You can also extend the life of your existing phone. If your iPhone 13 is running out of pep, you can get the battery replaced.”
Instead of buying a new phone, you can extend the life of your existing one. If your iPhone 13 is running out of pep, you can get the battery replaced by Apple or at Best Buy
for $89, according to both company’s websites. That could buy you another year or so, at which point you can get yourself a new iPhone 16 (if the company calls it that), which will probably feel like marked improvement over your current device.
Another tip: don’t let the length of your cell phone contract sway you. Now that contracts at some carriers run three years long, spending $100 more to get the fancier iPhone model will cost you about $2.80 per month over 36 months. That removes the financial sting, which can lead to buying a more advanced phone than you really need, said Josh Lowitz, co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, or CIRP, which publishes a Substack newsletter on Apple.
“[It] eases the decision to buy the more expensive phone and it subtly encourages you to buy the more expensive phone, because you’re expecting to own it longer and you want to future-proof your phone,” Lowitz told MarketWatch.
In other words, if you know you’re going to hold onto your phone for three years, you may buy one with more features and computing power than you actually require for your everyday tasks, because you may worry your phone will start to feel outdated in 12 or 24 months. Ignoring that concern could save you $100.
Is my verdict best for you?
On the other hand, if the safety features that Apple has been touting in recent years are important to you, the iPhone 15 could be worth it. The iPhone 13 doesn’t have the Emergency SOS feature that lets users text emergency responders via satellite when they’re out of cell phone range; that started with the iPhone 14.
For the iPhone 15 series, Apple has rolled out satellite-powered emergency roadside assistance through a partnership with AAA. The service is available for free for two years for all iPhone 15 buyers. “Apple is leaning into three critical, broad attributes: safety, privacy and health apps,” said Mike Levin, co-founder of CIRP. “All three are very personal to people. It’s very seductive. Those are messages that resonate very hard with many many different demographics.”
If you decide to upgrade, don’t forget that you can often get a discount on a new phone by trading in your old device. Here’s a look at the deals on offer from Verizon
Tell us in the comments which option should win in this Financial Face-off. If you have ideas for future Financial Face-off columns, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.