As Americans continue to cut household expenses to cope with tough economic times, more may be setting their sights on their cell phone bills.
But achieving cell phone savings, critics say, isn't easy because navigating the various plans and features offered by the different carriers can get confusing.
Consumers often don't choose the optimal plan at the outset and later, if they have second thoughts, they're hard-pressed to find a better option, said Schwark Satyavolu, the co-founder of BillShrink.com, a Web site that compares wireless phone plans.
"You start overpaying and you stay overpaying because it's too complicated," he said.
For their part, the carriers maintain that their plans are straightforward and they have Web sites and customer service representatives to help consumers choose the best plans.
But both critics and carriers seem to have the same advice for consumers looking to save: Understand what your wireless needs are -- that includes text-messaging and surfing the Web -- when you're choosing a wireless plan.
"The overall point is to make sure you're not really buying more than you need," said Allan Keiter, the president of MyRatePlan.com, another phone plan comparison Web site.
When it comes to minutes used for phone calls, many consumers would be best served choosing plans that provide about 10 to 15 percent more minutes than they need. Keiter says. That way they don't wind up paying "overages" -- per-minute fees for those who exceed the allotted number of monthly minutes.
For consumers with exceptionally volatile calling patterns -- those who significantly exceed their minute allotments in some months and use few minutes in others -- Keiter recommends choosing plans from AT&T, which allow subscribers to "roll over" unused minutes from previous months into new months.
For some, tracking the volume of their minutes is just the beginning. BillShrink.com provided us with several examples of how consumers can save money by making more sophisticated choices.
On family plans, adding a feature to just one line can be more economical than adding a feature to all the plan's lines. For instance, text-messaging is a must for many teens these days -- but that's not always true for Mom and Dad, and recognizing that can mean savings.
According to BillShrink, a family using three cell phone lines and an unlimited text messaging plan through T-Mobile may pay $99.93 a month -- $79.98 for T-Mobile's "FamilyTime" plan and $19.95 for the text message plan.
A text message plan for just one line -- the one, perhaps, being used by the family's teen -- would cost them $14.99 a month. Dropping the family text message plan in favor of the single-line text message plan would result in a savings of roughly $5 a month or $60 for one year.