iPhone Upgrade Program vs Buying, Trade In

Every year, when Apple makes its big announcement about the new iPhone being the most amazing device ever, you’re wondering whether you should upgrade or not. You consider whether the new features are worth it or whether you want a better camera or a better battery life.

Maybe your iPhone’s becoming gruelingly slow because you’re 3 years behind. Or maybe you can tell that your battery life is incrementally dying away with each night’s recharge.

On top of all this, worrying about what to do with your old device can add another stress point.

I’m a fan of the iPhone Upgrade Program (IUP) to relieve a lot of the hassle of making these decisions every year.

Is Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program worth it?

Here’s why I like it:

  • I want to stay up to date and get the latest iPhone every year. This was a bigger concern when I was a full time iOS developer. I do still have apps with users that depend on me in the App Store, however, and it’s important for me to stay relevant.
  • Fewer decisions for me to make. Similar to how I’ve designed my capsule wardrobe, I actually would prefer not to make a choice about whether I should upgrade or not. I just do it every year.
  • I don’t want to own my device. The last iPhone I still own is my 3GS that I keep on my home Computing Museum shelf. I have an old iPad Mini that’s soon to be trash, as it’s way too slow to be worthwhile to use it. I wouldn’t know what to do with an old iPhone.
  • Less e-waste in the world. If Apple knows how to recycle iPhones to help manufacture the next generation of devices, I’m happy about it.
  • I don’t care too much about AppleCare, but it’s a nice addition. I don’t keep a case on my iPhone and never have. Even adults have fidget spinners, and the iPhone is one of mine. AppleCare+ lets me care a little less about having a mishap. I like not having to baby my device. Scratches on the screen that naturally develop over time don’t bother me either. That’s one less thing on my mind.

Sounds like some luxury expensive shit


I realize that the above reasons for being enrolled in the IUP are pretty bougie.

I’m not looking at it as just a fully monetary choice. Just like my capsule wardrobe, it’s more than just about the economics. For me to be focused on things that matter to me, I prefer to reduce decisions in one area of my life for an economic price. I’m getting value, and that’s what I’m paying for.

Let’s break it down

Consider the iPhone 12 Pro that Apple released in 2020. The 128GB model retailed full price at $999, and IUP’s monthly for it was $49.91/month. In 2021, Apple will likely release a comparable iPhone 13 for the same price. We can also do some rough estimates of what trade in values may be.

Let’s look at what this looks like compared to other scenarios such as:

  • Buying the iPhone and trading it in for a new one at a later year
  • Buying the iPhone, not trading it in, and buying a new one at a later year

IUP analysis and assumptions

We’ll look at how much you’ll have spent as a Lifetime Total for each year over the course of 6 years.

iPhone Upgrade Program, Buying, Trade In 6 years Analysis

Green is what I value. I think most folks would agree that they want to pay less. I also favor not owning any devices and being able to use more devices.

How bougie is it?

Annually trading in is clearly a bad choice. You pay the most, and you don’t get AppleCare+, but at least you get the latest device every year. With no credit checks, I wonder if this may be the best choice if you’re a high roller with a cash only business. Drug dealers?

If you’re looking for a purely economic choice, going with the IUP and upgrading after 3 years seems like a no brainer. Not only do you pay the least out of these scenarios over time, you also end up with devices that you could sell if you wanted to.

If you want to try the latest iPhone every year, though, IUP with an annual upgrade comes at a premium. You’re not as bad as buying keeping the device for 2 years, but you’re getting diminishing economic returns compared to the other strategies here. And if your credit is bad, this is not going to be the best path for you.

Looking at this laid out, I’m fine with the premium I pay for the annual IUP. And over the longer term, we can see it diverging more and more from the IUP with 3 year upgrade.

Scenarios not considered

I don’t consider the scenarios where you buy your phone and subsequently sell it rather than trade it in. I haven’t ever sold anything on eBay before, so I can’t speak too much for it.

If you have the time to sell your device every few years, it could end up making sense, but I encourage you to do your own math for such a scenario. There’s a bit of risk that should be accounted for, as you may not get the price that you’re expecting when you bought your iPhone.

The best choice is based on your own values

What do you care about?

You want Optimal choice
More devices at lowest cost IAP, upgrade annually
Save most money over time IAP, upgrade @3yrs
No credit checks at lowest cost Buy, keep for 3 years

If it’s just the economics, the IUP with an upgrade every 3 years is your best bet. If you want to own your devices and have more of them, then buying and keeping for 3 years seems like a good choice. If you’re like me and want to stay up to date with the latest iPhone features and don’t want to actually own the device, then go with the annual IUP cycle.

Hope this helps you out in your own decision process!

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