photo: Yutaka Tsutano
The news of AT&T‘s (T) $39 billion bid for T-Mobile had barely sunk in when speculation began on the possible negative impact on consumers’ cellular bills. With less competitive pressure, what’s to stop the newly minted wireless giant from charging more for its services?
Already, consumer spending on wireless services is on the rise. The average wireless bill was a hefty $78 a month in 2010, according to J.D. Power & Associates, up from $69 three years earlier. And with the steady rise of smart phones as consumers’ preferred wireless device, this trend is likely to persist, thanks to the added cost of data plans, text messaging and ever-growing library of smart phone apps that seem inexpensive but quickly add up. Add together all these high tech “essentials” you have to budget for each month, and your cellular bill could quickly start competing with your car payments or even rent.
The good news: with a few minor changes to your current plan, you could reduce your bill significantly. This doesn’t mean cutting out the features you love, just cutting back a little, or perhaps “hacking” your phone service (the legal way). Free is even reasonable if you can live without a thing or two. Here are six tips:
Back into a Package
Buying a package can be significantly cheaper than purchasing the features you want separately. If you don’t know how many minutes and text messages you use a month, determining your usage is your first step.
Go for a slightly larger package than you think you need in the beginning, then downgrade after a month or two to fit your usage trends. If you try it the other way around, you may pay some serious overage charges.
Besides choosing appropriate amounts of voice minutes and texts, most cell providers now offer you deals to make calling your closest pals much cheaper. Alltel (AT) calls it “My Circle”; Verizon (VZ) calls it “Friends & Family.” They’re essentially the same thing. If there are a few people you consistently spend a lot of minutes on, you can make them special contacts and speak to them unlimited for free. Whatever your needs are, make sure you pay for them together to save.
Eliminate the Unnecessary
It’s up to you what these unnecessary add-ons are, so look at your phone plan and see what it comes with. A lot of wireless companies will give you all the extra tools they can unless you specify you don’t want them. So look at your package closely.
“Eliminate and monitor your usage by getting insurance and extra data off,” suggests Jackie with Verizon Wireless Customer Service Support.
These extras could be anything from roadside assistance to GPS capabilities. There are two good rules of thumb: 1) If you don’t need it, don’t get it. 2) If you only need it once in a while, is paying full price for it later less expensive than paying for it every month?
Do you have internet access at home and at work? If you do, think hard about removing internet data from your phone plan (if possible). If you’re paying $30 every month for mobile internet access, that’s $360 a year. For what? The ability to check Facebook on the 10-minute bus ride between the office and your house?
Use Rollover Minutes Strategically
You may have seen AT&T’s commercials for rollover minutes, or cellular minutes that you keep for later if you don’t use them each month. A good strategy for making the most of rollover minutes is to let them accumulate for several months, then lower your phone plan. Once you’ve used up most of your rollover minutes, increase your plan once more. (Just keep in mind, once you downsize the plan, you will lose some of those rollover minutes — but not all.)
“We offer two different sizes of rollover plans, one for 450 minutes a month at $39.99, and 900 minutes for $59.99,” says Marcy Whittaker with AT&T Customer Support. “These rollover minutes are good for a year from the date acquired.”
Angle for the Corporate Rate
If your company gets a corporate rate with a particular cell phone provider, there may be a provision for you to get that same discount on your personal phone. For example, the Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s lead Department of Energy nuclear R&D facility, uses Verizon Wireless for their 4,000 employees’ phone plans. Each employee gets to use the same 15% discount the company receives from Verizon. Ask your boss if they are connected with a provider — or if you are the boss, look into getting your company a corporate rate.
Occasionally, you can get access to corporate rates using a student ID, such as through AT&T’s business account program.
Save Your Minutes, With Skype
If you consistently run out of minutes, sign up for Skype. By connecting to the internet, Skype allows you to talk to anyone you want in the U.S. for free, and lets you use pre-paid cards for international phone calls. This way you can stay with the company you are under contract with, but pay less each month on voice minutes. You can even use Skype to do video calls.
Use A Smartphone To Get It All For Free
Got an iPhone, Android, or other smartphone? If you’re willing to sacrifice an always-on connection, there are ways to get voice minutes and text messages for free. Apps like Textie can get you free text messaging, and the Skype app can get you free calling. Now all you need to do is figure out a way to get a connection.
If you don’t mind just using WiFi (which means you won’t get a signal in many places), you can get SMS and voice for free, using apps. If you need that dedicated connection, you can buy a “mobile WiFi hotspot” and data plan for as low as $30 per month. You’ll have to carry the hotspot around with you (sizes range from a pack of gum to a small dinner plate), but you’ll save big time.
Shane Snow is editor and cofounder of Contently.com, which contributed this post exclusively for Mint.com.