Over the past decade and a half, the spending habits of Americans have shifted significantly. We have moved heavily toward spending a greater portion of our incomes into services that require recurring fees, like cable TV and cellular phones. Many people have switched off their traditional landline phones and carry only cell phones as they have noticed their home phones are being used a lot less.

With each member of your family having a separate cell phone and plans generally costing $50 to $100 per month, a family of five might be spending $3,000 or more annually on cell phone service. That would be 6 percent or more of the gross income of a household earning $50,000 a year.

The banking crisis of the past few years, and the resultant problems that it has caused consumers, have made it increasingly difficult for consumers to handle the costs of their cell phones. So Virgin Mobile (one of the Sprint companies) created Assurance Wireless, a special program that supplements the cost of cell phones and services for people who can’t otherwise afford it.

Now available in 22 states including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Assurance Wireless sets specific standards on a state-by-state basis to determine whether you qualify. In Pennsylvania, you can qualify by participating in Medicaid, food stamps, the national school lunch program or several other programs — or by meeting income guidelines, typically set at less than $35,330 for a family of five.

If you qualify, you get a free phone and 250 minutes of wireless voice service each month. No additional charges — not even any bills. You add minutes or texting, if needed, the same way a standard pay-as-you-go phone buys additional minutes — using a Virgin Mobile Top-Up Card that you can buy at a local retailer, your credit or debit card, or PayPal account using the Assurance Wireless website.

You’ll need to file an application by U.S. postal mail to participate (although you can get the application online). The application is short and sweet, asking only for your home address and phone number (assuming you have one), and the manner in which you are eligible. Then there are a few short paragraphs of acceptance text. Sign, date and mail it to the program office in Parsippany, N.J.

Virgin Mobile pays for your phone, accessories and shipping. The majority of the monthly fee is underwritten by the universal service fund (USF). You’ve probably noticed a charge for the USF on your phone bills — maybe even complained about it. Now you know what it is used for.

To get a paper application, you can call 1-800-395-2171 or if you have Internet service, go to assurancewireless.com to download a printable application. (You’ll also find program rules and specific eligibility requirements there.) You should expect approval within two weeks after they receive your application. If you only need the program for a short time, that’s fine. If you need it for more than a year, you’ll need to send in an annual recertification.

Why is Virgin Mobile doing this? In addition to being the right thing to do, the company is hoping you’ll remember them once you’re no longer eligible for the program, and will use their normal cellular service from that point forward.

From www.post-gazette.com