5 ways to lower your cell phone bill

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Your cell phone bill probably ranks among your highest monthly expenses, right along with your cable and utilities payments.

Here’s a heads up – you may be paying too much for your cell phone plan.

Because of the complexity of plans and usage charges, you need to be smart about making use of your family’s wireless plans and phones.

Service plans have undergone dramatic changes in the past few years. Most carriers offer both family plan options and so-called “unlimited” plans where voice minutes, the number of text messages, or the amount of data received while web browsing or downloading movies and music are a flat fee. But it’s important to read the fine print for these plans and choose wisely in terms of what best fits you and your family. Otherwise, your plan will not match your lifestyle and you’ll end up overcharged.

Here are five potential ways to reduce your monthly cell phone bill.

Choose less talk, more money

In an online article last month, Mobile Crunch cited a cell phone study by Billmonitor which showed that many people sign-up for more voice minutes than they use. This ends up wasting several hundred dollars per year.

Why the overestimation? Two likely reasons. Most people, at some point, have paid exorbitant per-minute extra charges after using up voice plan minutes during a month. Thus, we are all nervous about underestimating our voice usage. Also, it’s difficult for people to figure out how many minutes they actually use each month.

To save money on voice minutes, figure out how much you talk on average per month. You’ll find phone store staff very helpful here. In a few minutes, they can tell your average across several months and also route you to a plan that fits best. Or, do it yourself by reading over your monthly bills or logging-in to your account online.

To stop going over, set up text alerts from your carrier (most offer this service for free) when you cross your plan’s limit, or do a quick query every couple of days. Each carrier has a code you can punch-in over your phone to find out how many minutes you’ve used during a billing period.

Guard the data limit

Phones are more capable now then ever and we rely on them for email, web browsing, and running apps that access the Internet. All this computation creates traffic on a carrier’s data network, and many have opted to pass this burden onto customers by dropping unlimited data plans in favor of plans with limits and overage charges similar to voice plans. Typical data plans charge a small monthly fee for very light data usage, like 250MB, and more for higher tiers like 1GB, 3GB, or 5GB.

The Billmonitor survey also says people commonly go over their data plan limits and get whacked with higher bills as a result. To address this, talk to your local phone store staff to determine how much data you use in an average month. For smartphones like the Apple (AAPL) iPhone and Android-based phones, look for data monitoring apps like DataMan on iPhone or PhoneUsage on Android to help track your data and alert you when you go over limits.

Call out family plan data hogs

On family plans, everything gets shared – voice minutes, text message counts, and data usage totals. So, if one person in the family – let’s say a teen – talks, texts, or browses constantly, it can throw everyone off and over the plan limits into extra fees.

Consider creative solutions like converting the plan into a pay-as-you-go phone like the AT&T (T) Go Phone. For $2 a day, you get unlimited talk and text. Best of all, you’re only charged on days you use the phone so it’s perfect for families that allow kids to use phones on weekends but not during the school week.

Leverage the home hotspot

Have Wi-Fi Internet access in your home? If so, make sure you eek out every dime you can from this convenience. Ask your kids to use their iPod Touch devices for calls and texting to take the pressure off your cell plan.

For those without iPods, you can accomplish the same thing by connecting your iPhone or Android phone to your home Wi-Fi network and using a free calling app such as JAJAH for iPhone and Tango for Android. You just need to come to terms with handing over your phone to your kids while at home.

Don’t impulse buy carrier services

Most carriers offer texting packages and special entertainment services like music and movie downloads that could add to your bill. Apps such as Textfree with Voice provide you with your own phone number that others can call or text and it doesn’t cost you anything. Music services like Pandora Radio and entertainment providers like Hulu can be downloaded for free and offer a lot of great content at no cost.

As far as services designed to help you find your friends and family on a map – like AT&T’s FamilyMap – the free Glympse app lets you “share your where” with those you specify. Rather than pay $10 per month to access voice navigation services like the Verizon (VZ) Wireless’ VZ Navigator, you should consider downloading one of the many free apps like Waze (available to Verizon customers who own iPhones and Android devices) that can also guide you to where you want to go.

If you’re considering any other carrier services, just search the Internet for cheap or free alternatives using the keywords of what the service provides. You may need to do a little set up, but the savings will be worth it. Overall, become more familiar with your current cell phone plan by registering and logging-in to to your carrier account online. It’s easy to check your voice and data usage and set up alerts for when you are about to go over your limits. Be smart to save money.

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