If you're among the 29 percent of our readers who are seriously considering changing carriers and want to cut costs in the process, switching to prepaid service is not your only option. Here's how to pare your bill if you're shopping among the big four contract carriers or if you simply want to cut costs with your current contract plan:
Review the voice minutes you've used and not used in the past six months. Among the readers who responded to an informal poll on our Electronics blog, almost two-thirds of those who had a contract plan reported using only about 200 of the average 600 minutes in their plan. Of the minutes they did use, only one in six were billable; the rest were free night and weekend, mobile-to-mobile, and calling-list minutes. Bottom line: Some cell-phone users could save money by switching to a plan with fewer included minutes, provided it offered the same free talk-time benefits.
If you have a multiline family plan, don't ring up your better half or kids by dialing their landline home or work phones because you get charged for those minutes. Use the family-plan cell phone instead because those in-network mobile-to-mobile minutes are usually free and unlimited.
BillShrink, which collects and analyzes the calling needs of about 430,000 cell users per month, says consumers make 65 percent of their calls to the same five phone numbers. So if you're in a plan that offers unlimited free minutes to designated calling-list phone numbers, such as Verizon Friends & Family, register your five to 10 most-called numbers. Those carriers also offer free unlimited calling to other cell users within their networks, so limit your calling list to land lines and cell numbers outside your network.
Messaging on contract plans requires buying messages à la carte at 15 to 20 cents per message, a package of 200 to 1,500 messages per month for $5 to $15, or a higher-priced package or plan that includes unlimited messaging. About 54 percent of texters in our survey bought unlimited plans. Among the remaining survey respondents who bought a fixed number of messages or paid à la carte, 12 percent sent and received more texts than expected and were hit with high charges for texting.
Surprise: Your daughter exceeded your plan's texting limit by 2,000 messages. Before you fork over hundreds of dollars in extra fees, call customer service. Some consumers have found that carriers will retroactively change plans or forgive charges for an aberrant high monthly bill due to a change in usage or the like. By more than two to one, survey respondents chose the human touch of a phone call over contact via a Web site as a way to reach customer support.
À la carte plans for data use charge by how many megabytes of data you use e-mailing, uploading, and downloading. Rates per megabyte range from $1.99 (Verizon) to $10.24 (AT&T) to Sprint's exorbitant $30.72. Even with rules of thumb to help—Verizon estimates that you'll usually use 1MB by viewing about 80 Web pages—data estimates are a crapshoot, and it's little wonder that only 4 percent of Web/e-mail users in our survey risked a plan that bills data on a per-megabyte basis. With most smart phones, you have to get an unlimited Internet access package or an "everything included" plan with unlimited Web and messaging. Such plans cost $10 to $60 per month.
Services such as those at www.billshrink.com (free) and www.myvalidas.com (at least $5) will sift through the major contract carrier plans for you, based on usage patterns and worthwhile added logic; their information includes the available phones with various plans and their cost. You can also even choose the plan by the phone, if you prefer. They're useful, obviously, when you're shopping for a carrier but are also worth periodically checking to make sure you're not overpaying with your current carrier. Those services don't include plans offered by leading prepaid carriers, whose prices we found are often cheaper.
Seventeen percent of our readers with a contract wanted to switch carriers but didn't want to get hit with an early termination fee that can run as high as $350 (Verizon), $175 (AT&T) or $200 (Sprint and T-Mobile) per phone line. But your termination fee, although still hefty, might be lower than those figures because carriers now reduce the fees over the life of the contract. If you switch to a new carrier, test out the phone and service during the carrier's 15- to 30-day trial period, when you can quit and port your number to another carrier without incurring a penalty.