Cut your family's cell phone bill

@Money April 16, 2012: 6:51 AM ET
Once upon a time, your family plan didn't cost a small fortune. Try these tactics to bring it back to bearable.

Once upon a time, your family plan didn't cost a small fortune. Try these tactics to bring it back to bearable.

(MONEY Magazine) -- You knew joining the smartphone revolution would have repercussions for your monthly budget. Now that your whole household is hooked up, however, the sum total of overages, surcharges and usage fees has probably caught you by surprise.

The average individual's cell phone bill is up by 31% since 2009, to $71 a month, reports J.D. Power & Associates. And for a family of four who all have smartphones, the tab can easily top $200. Get your cell phone clan -- and costs -- in line with these tricks:

Put your kids on hold. Teenagers in particular can bulk up the bill: A 2010 Nielsen survey found that the average U.S. teen sends or receives 3,339 texts a month. An unlimited texting plan can solve that particular problem.

But if your child goes over on other allowances, ask your carrier about parental controls. You can cap texts, minutes, megabytes of data, even the amount spent on apps. Once your child exceeds the limits, he's cut off until next month.

You can also have cell phones blocked at certain times -- say, school hours. (Settings can be tweaked so your kid can call home or 911.) Most carriers charge $5 a month per line for controls, but if you pay more in overages, it may be worth the cost .

Don't want to be so rigid? Set up text alerts to keep tabs on your teen's usage, says Sascha Segan, cell phone analyst at When your kid's near the limit, impose restrictions.

Dial down your data usage

Going over your data allowance on your own cell phone? Each megabyte of overage can add $10 to $30 per line. Avoid streaming content -- think YouTube or online radio -- over the cellular network, as this hogs bandwidth.

Also, program your phone to switch from 3G to Wi-Fi when a hotspot is available (in the settings menu). And, when web browsing on the go, use a site's mobile version instead of the full version (type "m" in place of "www").

Finally, change email settings from "push" to "manual" so you get new messages only when you refresh your in-box.

Call (or text) for free

Some 17% of cell phone users go over their monthly minutes, reports, a site that helps consumers cut their mobile bills. Extend your talk time by using apps like Google+ Hangouts or Skype.

"These video chats can use Wi-Fi to make calls, and they're typically free when you call someone with the same app," says Jessica Dolcort of tech site (Apple's FaceTime works the same way, but only with other iPhone, iPad or Mac users.)

Similarly, for texting, WhatsApp and GroupMe allow you to transmit free messages across devices. You'll have to get friends to install the app too -- but once you do, your cell phone bill will be better for it.

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