Cell phones: Make talk cheaper

By Rik Fairlie


(Money Magazine) -- You've heard iPhone users gripe about their mammoth monthly charges -- but it's not just those with the fanciest smart phones who are paying a bundle.

"The average consumer overspends by $300 a year," says Schwark Satyavolu of BillShrink.com, which helps consumers save on expenses. Knocking that much off your tab isn't hard, experts say: You can do it by changing your plan, your carrier, or the way you use your phone.

CHANGE YOUR PLAN

Adjusting your current plan is the easiest way to save. You don't even have to extend or terminate your contract.

Downshift service. "Eight of 10 people don't use what they pay for," says BillShrink's Satyavolu. Ask your carrier for a usage summary going back 12 months to see if you could get by on a cheaper plan.

Go in on data. While many people get family voice packages, fewer take advantage of family messaging and data plans -- which can save you a lot. AT&T, for example, offers unlimited texts for a family for $30 a month, vs. $20 per person.

Ask about affiliate discounts. If you work for a large company, government agency, or university, you probably qualify for a discount -- up to around 25% -- on your personal phone. Get details from HR.

Cancel coverage .Unless you have a disaster-prone teen, insurance that covers your phone for loss or damage is usually a waste. You'll pay $4 to $6 a month, and the deductible ranges from $50 to $125. You can get a new phone for less, should you need one.

Say you're leaving . "Carriers don't want to lose customers, so if you tell them you've found a better plan, you could get a break," says Sascha Segan, cell phone analyst at PCMag.com.

CHANGE YOUR CARRIER

You may be able to do better by switching to another carrier, but wait until your contract is up to avoid termination fees.

Check out the competition. The four major carriers --AT&T (T, Fortune 500), Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500), Sprint (S, Fortune 500), and T-Mobile -- have roughly 220 plans combined. BillShrink.com and Validas.com will help you wade through them to determine if you could get a better deal from a different carrier, based on your past usage.

Look beyond the big four. Regional carriers such as U.S. Cellular, MetroPCS, and Cricket Wireless offer savings of $20 a month over plans from the big four. You won't get a signal nationwide, so if you travel to a place where there's no coverage, you'll pay roaming charges. "But you can save serious money if you're a homebody," says Segan. BillShrink and Validas don't include these carriers, so compare some of them at wirelessadvisor.com.

Prepay the piper. It's easy to see why prepaid phone plans are rapidly gaining in popularity: They offer calling, texts, and web access starting at $40 a month -- with no contract or cancellation fees. If you use less than 300 minutes a month, they can be an economical choice. LetsTalk.com helps you compare plans. Also, AARP members can get a no-contract phone with 250 minutes, and service from Consumer Cellular, starting at $19 a month.

CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR

How you use your phone can have a lot to do with how much you'll pay. These easy behavioral shifts can save big money.

Monitor your minutes. For those without unlimited calling plans, charges for going over the monthly allotment of minutes average $36 per line, reports Validas.com. If you tend to approach the danger zone, check your usage weekly-- online or via the dialing code provided by your carrier -- and limit your calls accordingly. Also, get into the habit of using your landline or work phone during business hours, when mobile minutes usually count against your monthly maximum.

Get the 411 for free. Don't know the number you need to reach? Dialing 411 will cost you at least $1.49 a pop. Use Google's no-cost option instead: Just call 800-GOOG-411.

Dialing abroad over Wi-Fi. If you often make international calls and have an app-capable smart phone, download the Skype app. Because it operates over Wi-Fi, Skype lets you call landline phones abroad at reduced rates. (On certain Verizon phones, the Skype Mobile app does operate over the cellular network vs. Wi-Fi, but it still isn't billed to your normal minutes.) Plus, you can call other Skype users free. Either way, you'll be saying adieu to a big portion of your bill.  To top of page

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