How much cell service do you really need?

These user profiles tell you exactly what you should buy—and what you'll pay for it with each major carrier

Published: December 2013

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Signing up for a new cellular-service contract means choosing voice, data, and texting plans that meet your needs. But how can you know ahead of time what those needs are? To spec out a plan, start by reviewing your bills for the previous year and assume that your usage will be about the same.

Note the monthly peaks, but don’t overbuy a plan that covers them all. Many carriers now alert you when you approach or exceed your data limits. Should that happen, you can temporarily switch to a plan with bigger rations to cover the spike, without having to extend your contract commitment.

We’ve created four user profiles below, showing voice, data, and messaging usage, along with an affordable plan for each of the major carriers that fits each profile.

Average user

This is one of the 65 percent of U.S. consumers who own a smart phone (according to Nielsen), a group whose numbers have been increasing recently. But voice calling and texting have become less important to this user than in the past, because more mobile communication is shifting to data-based applications.

He doesn’t overindulge in bandwidth-hogging activities such as streaming video and audio but can still send hundreds of texts and e-mails per month. His usage of social-media sites such as Facebook and Instagram is moderate.

Monthly usage

Individual plan
Voice minutes: 600
Text messages: 600
Data: 1GB

Monthly cost

T-Mobile: $60
Sprint: $70
AT&T: $85
Verizon: $90

Power user

This individual lives with her smart phone. It's a digital alarm clock in the morning and is used extensively all day and night to communicate with friends, family, and business associates. The power user stays connected via voice, text, and an extraordinary amount of data for work, social media, news, games, and streaming video and music.

Monthly usage

Individual plan
Voice minutes: 1,500
Text messages: 1,200
Data: 6GB

Monthly cost

T-Mobile: $70
Sprint: $80
Verizon: $120
AT&T: $125

To help you do your research before you decide on a phone and plan, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

Family of four

This family includes two parents with smart phones who use more than the average amount of data for Web access, social networking, banking and investments, and some streaming video or music. Two children, who do a lot of texting, have non-smart phones to avoid surprise high-data charges.

Four users means a lot more demand for voice minutes, and those kids sure can text a lot. But multi-line share plans give standard carriers a per-line pricing advantage over prepaid carriers, where you must piece together individual- or two-line plans to create a poor imitation of a contract family plan.

Monthly usage:

Shared plan: 4 phones
Voice minutes: 1,800
Text messages: 7,600
Data: 4GB

Monthly cost:

T-Mobile: $110
Sprint: $200
AT&T: $210
Verizon: $210

Low-use couple

This couple is among the roughly 60 percent of U.S. consumers who still have a home landline, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The couple has two cell phones.

The less-techy user has a non-smart phone to stay in touch while out and about, and for emergencies. The more tech-adventurous individual uses a smart phone for checking stocks, news, and weather; keeping up with the grandkids' activities via Facebook; and some texting.

Monthly usage:

Shared plan: 2 phones
Voice minutes: 400
Text messages: 200
Data: 5GB

Monthly cost:

T-Mobile: $ 80
Sprint: $110
Verizon: $110
AT&T: $115
Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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