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5 Great Ways to Save Money on Your Family Phone Bill

Dan Tynan

Like all human beings, I am made of muscle and bone, of corpuscles and follicles and skin. But my teenagers seem to believe I am made of money. This becomes especially clear when it comes to their smartphones.

Smartphone with hundred-dollar bills
Smartphone with hundred-dollar bills


My daughter is enveloped in a cloud of streaming music 24/7. My son spends all his waking hours listening to podcasts or watching YouTube on his mobile. We push them to use WiFi whenever possible and to turn the screens off once in a while. Yet until recently, each monthly wireless bill looked like the defense budget of a Central European nation, thanks largely to data overage charges.

Read more: When Should You Buy Your Child a Smartphone?

We eventually got smarter about their smartphones and took steps to reduce our bills. They’re still painful, but much less so. Here are five ways you can reduce your bills, too:

1. Choose the right plan, man.
When it comes to voice and data plans, it feels like wireless carriers are conspiring to drive us all insane (and make us pay for stuff we don’t need). Fortunately, WhistleOut.com offers an awesome calculator for figuring out whether it’s cheaper to put your kids on a family plan or to cut them loose.

WhistleOut screenshot
WhistleOut screenshot

Plug in the number of lines, type of phone, and how you expect to use each one. WhistleOut then spits out plans for you to choose from.

In most cases the family plan still wins, says WhistleOut editor Joseph Hanlon. That’s because the incremental cost of adding a few lines isn’t much more than paying for two parents’ phones, especially if you or your spouse are also data hogs.

Look for an “unlimited” data plan that throttles speeds to a crawl after your kids hit their data quota, which is typically between 500 megabytes and 2.5 gigabytes per month, Hanlon says. That way you can both avoid overage charges and annoy your teenagers. In my house we call that a win-win.

Or consider a pay-as-you-go plan from Ting, which charges only for the minutes, text, and data you actually use. You can set up alerts when teens are nearing a specified amount of voice, texts, or data and automatically disable these functions when they hit their limits.

2. Lock it down.
Whether or not you change plans, you still need to keep an eye on the voice minutes, texts, and data your teens are using. For $5 a month, both AT&T and Verizon give you the ability to block calls, limit how and when they use the phone, and get alerts when they’re nearing or exceeding their monthly data quota. CTIA, the trade association for wireless carriers, offers a comprehensive list of parental controls by vendor.

You can also get a phone that has parental controls built in (like those sold by Kajeet). Third-party apps like Mobidia’s free My Data Manager help you track your child’s data usage, while Mobiflock’s Mobile Guardian gives you total control over her device. Besides saving you money, this also makes it easier to invoke the nuclear option when your teen is being a brat.

3. Cut ’em loose.
As your kids get older, consider getting them prepaid phones. If nothing else, this can provide a financial wake-up call, notes Brandon Ackroyd, head of customer insight for Tiger Mobiles, a phone comparison site.

“My advice is to buy your kids an off-contract prepaid phone,” Ackroyd says. “Giving them a fixed amount of money to spend each month not only avoids surprises from excessive data usage, it actually helps educate them on how to set a budget and make their credit stretch for a full month before they can top up again.”

Screenshot showing how to set up Virgin Mobile's Custom plan
Screenshot showing how to set up Virgin Mobile's Custom plan

Virgin’s Mobile Custom plan lets you adjust your monthly plan on the fly using an app on your phone.

Virgin Mobile Custom offers prepaid phones with plans starting at $7, with the ability to add certain apps à la carte (unlimited Twittering, for example, will cost another $5). These phones feature a ton of parental controls, such as the ability to turn off certain apps at certain times (like Facebook during school hours). The downside? You have a choice of just three Android handsets, ranging from $80 to $130, and they’re available only at Walmart.

4. WiFi your phone.
Want an even cheaper option? Get a phone that uses WiFi networks for calls and data and then rolls over to a prepaid plan when a network isn’t available. Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless offer plans from $0 to $40 per month.

Read more: The 7 Worst Things You Can Do With Your Kid’s Phone

There are some downsides to this as well. First, you’ll have to pay $150 to $350 upfront for a phone your teenager isn’t exactly craving. (In other words, it won’t be an iPhone 6 or a Galaxy S5.) And once they roam beyond home, connecting to other networks can be dicey.

5. Turn off the in-app tap.
Here’s the scary part. You can do all of the above and still get whacked upside the wallet with massive in-app purchase charges. Nip those in the bud by changing a few settings on your Android or iOS phone, says Robert Siciliano, online security expert for McAfee.

Turning off in-app purchases on an Android phone
Turning off in-app purchases on an Android phone

You have the power to turn off in-app purchases. Do it now, before the Kim Kardashian app saps any more money from your bank account.

It’s easy. In Android, just launch the Google Play store app, go into the Settings menu, and scroll down to User Controls. Select Require password for purchases and select an option (for all purchases or just every 30 minutes). With iOS, launch the Settings app, navigate to General settings, and then Restrictions. You’ll have to enable or enter a PIN and then scroll down to turn off in-app purchases.

The only problem here is that you may have to endure a lot of whiny requests to turn in-app purchases back on. But that’s a small price to pay now for avoiding big costs later.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.