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How to Lower Your Cell Phone Bill

Daniel Bortz

Addicted to your cell phone? Tired of paying a fat bill for it each month? Join the club.

Approximately 87 percent of the U.S. population has a mobile phone, according to a recent survey by the Federal Reserve. The average individual's cell phone bill is also up to $71 a month, reports J.D. Power & Associates. And with all of the options available to customers, you're probably having a hard time finding the best plan for your buck.

Fortunately, there are a number of changes you can make to lower your monthly bill. Industry experts offer these tips:

Reduce your data plan. If your data needs are none or minimal but you like to text, a number of phones offer a good feature set, including a physical QWERTY keyboard, without an operating system. "These phones don't require a data plan, so that cost can be eliminated," says Allan Keiter, president of MyRatePlan.com, a website that compares cell phones and rate plans. To determine how much data you'll need, use MyRatePlan.com's data calculator and adjust your plan accordingly. T-Mobile offers data plans for as little as $10 a month, with AT&T's light user Data Plus plan at $20 per month.

"Make sure your phone automatically connects to Wi-Fi at work and at home, so you aren't using mobile data in those locations," advises Sascha Segan, a cell phone analyst at PCMag.com. Segan says there are also apps, like Boingo and Devicescape, which help your phone automatically connect to public Wi-Fi.

Opt for a value plan. T-mobile introduced several value plans earlier this year. These two-year contract plans offer voice and data at a lower price for customers who either pay full price for their T-Mobile phone or who use their own device. For example: An iPhone with an unlimited talk, text, and 3GB data plan with AT&T runs you up to $119.99 a month, but if you get your iPhone unlocked and take it to T-Mobile, you can get unlimited voice, text, and 2GB data for $59.99 a month. "One downside, at least with the iPhone, is that cellular data will be at painfully slow 2G speed, so this probably only makes sense for those who can be on Wi-Fi most of the time," Keiter says.

Use your data plan to cut costs. Download Skype to your phone and use it to bypass the cellular network for some calls. "This can potentially allow someone to move to a voice plan with fewer minutes, which could save $10 or $20 a month," Keiter says. Segan adds that Skype will "give you much lower international rates than your regular cell phone plan." You can also text over the data network. For example, newer versions of Apple's operating system have a feature called iMessage that, if turned on, recognizes other users and essentially bypasses the cellular network to send a text message. Other than the color (a blue bubble instead of green) and the cost (doesn't use one's text bundle or cost per-use), it is indistinguishable from regular text messaging.

Bundle text messaging. Carriers can charge you $0.20 to send or receive a text, so a bundle makes sense for most users. Unfortunately, "AT&T has recently raised the price of messaging by eliminating all but the unlimited bundle," Keiter says. AT&T options are $20 for unlimited texts or $0.20 each. For those whose text needs are less, Keiter recommends Verizon, which charges $10 for 1,000 texts, or Sprint, which has $5 and $10 tiers for non-smartphone users. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon also offer savings opportunities for unlimited text on a family plan. "While beneficial to two users, this would be particularly useful for families with heavy-texting teenagers on the family plan with the parents," Keiter says.

Consider prepaid options. For the heaviest voice users, Keiter says it's cheaper to have an unlimited no-contract plan than a contract with a major carrier. The downside is that the phones aren't subsidized, so the upfront cost could be a couple hundred dollars extra, depending on the phone. Keiter recommends Straight Talk (available at Wal-Mart or online), which offers unlimited voice, text, and data for $45 a month, with a few Android smartphones now available. "This is half or less of what this would cost with the major carriers," he says. Prepaid is also a good option for the lightest users. "The rate per minute tends to be higher, but the cost per month can be lower than monthly-type plans," he says. You can purchase 1,000 minutes for a $100 plan from T-Mobile.

Shop around. Don't just look at the big four--Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. "There's an entire world of smaller carriers," Segan says. These are known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MVNOs, such as Simple Mobile and H20 Wireless. "They don't actually operate their own network. But if you don't demand the latest high-end smartphone, you'll find that the monthly rates will be very competitive," he says. You can also call up your carrier and say you're considering a cheaper plan from a smaller carrier. Segan says, "They may throw you something to keep you."

Twitter: @danielbortz

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