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How to Lock Down Your Data Usage Once and for All

·National Correspondent, Technology
People using smartphones
People using smartphones

Me and my friends, usually. (Thinkstock)

Hi, my name is Alyssa, and I am a data hog.

It happened slowly, and then all at once. I’m not quite sure what pushed me over my limit. I just know that my phone is a source of endless entertainment and a necessary communication hub. I was never lucky enough to be grandfathered into an unlimited plan, and so before I could even hit Pause on my stream of the new Drake single, I was collecting $30 data overage surcharges on top of my $105 plan each month.

I’m not a Luddite, and yet I couldn’t tell what exactly was pushing me over. So I sought to understand my addiction. Below, I’ve detailed my journey, which, coincidentally, can serve as a comprehensive guide to breaking free from your data dependency and avoiding those pricey overages.

Confronting the truth

Man reaching for smartphone
Man reaching for smartphone

SAME. (Thinkstock)

The first step is actually coming to terms with your usage. It’s easy to block out all the hours you’ve spent watching kittens on YouTube (or forcing your friends to watch them), and think your phone activities are under control. But until you face some cold, hard numbers, you’re basically in denial.

Most American data pushers provide monitoring tools. AT&T, for instance, has a section hidden away on its website called “Usage Reports” that will graph how much data in gigabytes, minutes, or texts you’ve gobbled up over a period of time of your choice. As you can see below, I’ve been kind of relapsing recently.

Data Usage graph
Data Usage graph

Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all have similar tools. This is a helpful way to note your average usage and monthly habits and adjust your overall plan accordingly. But it’s not all that useful when it comes to actual real-time monitoring.

For that, the carriers offer a few different types of alerts that allow you to see the data you’re burning through while you’re using your phone. Each carrier has an app for this:

1. AT&T’s is called myAT&T and is available on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows.

2. Sprint’s is named Sprint Center and/or Sprint Zone and is available on Android and iOS.

3. T-Mobile’s is called T-Mobile My Account and is available on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows.

4. And, finally, Verizon’s is named My Verizon Mobile and is available on Android, BlackBerry, and iOS.

As you might expect, these apps aren’t always the most well-designed software. A lot of them are poorly rated and don’t allow you to create push notifications to alert you when you’re nearing your data limit. No surprise there, since they were, after all, designed by your data pushers.

Of course, the final strategy for enlightenment is one that you don’t have much control over. Some providers automatically text message or email you if you’re wading into dangerous waters — for instance, roaming internationally, or if you’re well over half your limit. Some also let you call or text a preset number to check in on your data anytime, and it’s usually free! Below, a quick summary of the four major carriers’ policies in this area:

AT&T: Though the company warns there’s “no guarantee that you’ll receive” notifications in the first place (thanks for nothing, AT&T), it tries to send you a courtesy text or email alert when you’re at 65 percent, 90 percent, and 100 percent of your plan’s limit. If you’re on a shared plan, it’s the same policy.

You can always find out your current billing period’s usage by dialing *DATA# (*3282#).

Sprint: Sprint has a “spending limit” program that allows you to adjust the amount you’re willing to be charged each month, and as you’re approaching it, you’ll be notified via text.

So it’ll notify you when you’re within 80 percent of your limit and also once you reach your cap. If you go 25 percent over what you said you’d pay, your entire account will be suspended.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just applied to your data usage, but everything on your account: your calling minutes, data, and something called “directory assistance charges.”

So not that helpful! But you can text the word “usage” to 1311 to get a text back with your current numbers.

T-Mobile: Like the others, T-Mobile will also give you a heads-up both before and after you reach your data limit, but it doesn’t specify at what percentage the former occurs. It’ll also tell you if you’re incurring roaming charges.

You can dial #WEB# (#932#) on your phone and learn about your current usage that way, too.

Verizon: You’ll get text message alerts when you’ve used 75 percent, 90 percent, and all of your monthly data allowance, whether you’re on an individual plan or a family one. And, just like the others, Verizon will tell you if you’re roaming. Verizon also is the only one of these companies that seems to allow you to adjust your usage alerts in any sort of useful way.

And just like with the others, you can text #DATA (#3282), and you’ll get a text message with your usage info.

Knowing what’s working against you


Cellphone tower
Cellphone tower

Trust no carrier. (Thinkstock)

Though I am admittedly a data hog, I knew it wasn’t just me. Because of all the endless updates that apps require, smartphones have enabled them to subtly update in the background of your phone. If you only have a few go-to classics, that’s a great way to avoid waiting for something to refresh until you’ve actually loaded it. But if you’re an app hoarder like me, your precious data could very well be sucked up in the process.

The first step you can take in correcting this? Limit which apps can use your cellular data to function in the first place.

Keep in mind that any app you turn off will be able to function only while you’re connected to WiFi. In other words, if you use something on the go a lot, you probably shouldn’t cut it off quite yet. That being said, streaming music or videos with your phone’s cellular data is especially wasteful. Keep that in mind when you’re toggling.

Here’s how to clean up in iOS:

Go to Settings Cellular . If you want to nip the whole thing in the bud for a short period of time, you can flick the tab for Cellular Data off. But the more practical solution would be to scroll down to a section named Use Cellular Data For and choose which apps deserve that privilege. (Check out my guide on how to read this list to see which apps are taking up the most data.)

Cellular Settings screen
Cellular Settings screen

You can also adjust the apps you’d like to update silently in the background.

Go to Settings → General → Background App Refresh. There you can either turn off the whole feature (good for saving your battery!) or pick and choose based on your favorites. If you’re a news hound, you’ll probably want to leave those to update on their own, but an app like LinkedIn maybe isn’t as urgent.

Background App Refresh screen
Background App Refresh screen

Here’s how to clean up in Android:

Go to Settings Wireless & networks. Then tap Data usage (which may or may not be called Mobile data, depending on what smartphone/version of Android you’re using).

Scroll down to the bottom of this screen, and there’ll be a list of apps that show how much data they’ve been using. Here you can also see an app’s draining in the “foreground” (like when you’re actually using the app) and its draining in the “background” (when it’s not open).

Mobile Data setting screen
Mobile Data setting screen

Just turn on Restrict background data for any apps you want to cut off.

Take responsibility

Herding dog with sheep
Herding dog with sheep

You’re the dog. The sheep are your data. Work with me here. (Thinkstock).

You can’t blame all your data usage on forces beyond your control. There are a few things you should probably do more. And a lot of things you should do less.

Do more
1. Connecting to WiFi whenever you’re at home, at work, or in a cafe. Every minute you conduct your smartphone business over WiFi is a minute you’re not using up your mobile data. Do not be afraid to ask a friend for her WiFi password. It’s a totally socially acceptable request. This is the modern world we live in, people.

2. Pre-downloading music and videos on your desktop, and then loading them onto your mobile device. If you’re a premium Spotify user, for instance, you have the ability to save whatever you want on your phone, as long as there’s room for it. It might take a while, but it’s worth it. Same goes for a lot of RSS feeds, news, and podcast apps.

If you must stream a video, look for a way to reduce its quality before you hit Play. For instance, when you tap YouTube videos, there’s usually a transparent three-dot icon in the upper-right corner.

Three-dot icon on a YouTube video
Three-dot icon on a YouTube video

If you tap that, you’ll be given an option to choose the quality.

Screen letting you choose YouTube video quality
Screen letting you choose YouTube video quality

Be prudent and select one on the lower end of the scale.

YouTube video quality choices
YouTube video quality choices

3. Using better mobile browsers. Earlier this year, Google added a feature in both the iOS and Android versions of Chrome that it said would reduce browsing data usage by a whopping 50 percent. The little-known mobile browser, Opera, on the other hand, says it uses 90 percent less data than its competitors.

4. Using iMessage in iOS or messaging apps like Hangouts in Android.

Do less
1. Streaming from apps like Pandora, Netflix, YouTube, Rdio, Spotify, and whatever it is you sports fans use to watch live games these days.

2. Photo and video-based social network stalking. I love Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat just as much as the rest of you, but any feed that requires loading an endless stream of photos and videos is a data sinkhole waiting to happen.

3. Playing games with high-quality graphics that require data use. See Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood.

4. Using Siri or OK Google if you’re not connected to WiFi. Those services are known to suck up a lot of data.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em


Embrace the data hog within you. (Thinkstock)

If you’ve implemented all my suggestions and are still running into problems, maybe it’s time to consider upgrading to a larger data plan. In the end, it could be cheaper than paying annoying overage fees every time you inevitably reach your peak.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.