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.
Mobile Carriers Offer Competitive Cell Phone Plans
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.
Getting It Straight: Multiple Ways to Save on Wireless Phones
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.
Sharing Isn't Always Better
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.
"Add-Ons" Can Mean Added Savings
Sometimes adding features to a cheaper plan can deliver more savings than choosing a more expensive plan, according to BillShrink. Take the case of a consumer who pays $59.99 for a Sprint "Talk 900" plan. The plan allows 900 "anytime" minutes and he uses nearly all of them.
But if he's using most of those minutes between 6 and 7 p.m., he could do better: Switching to a Sprint "Talk 450" plan for $39.99 and choosing a $5 add-on for a Sprint feature that allows consumers to make free calls after 6 p.m. -- instead of after 7 p.m. under the traditional plan -- brings the total bill to $44.99. The result? The monthly bill drops about $15, for an annual savings of $180.
With the proliferation of mobile-to-mobile calling features -- which allow users to call others in the same carrier network for free -- sometimes it's worthwhile to switch carriers so that you're in the same network as most of your friends and family.
For instance, a consumer using AT&T's "Nationwide Unlimited" plan pays $99.99 per month. Since she uses some 2,500 minutes each month, it seems to make sense for her.
But if the four people she calls most are Verizon Wireless customers, she has a better choice, according to BillShrink. If she switches to Verizon, she can choose a plan that allots 1,350 monthly minutes but also allows free mobile-to-mobile calling that doesn't eat into her monthly limit.
The 1,350-minute plan costs $79.99, saving the consumer roughly $20 a month or $240 a year. (The opposite situation -- saving money by switching to AT&T because it has more of your friends and loved ones -- would also apply: AT&T also offers free mobile-to-mobile calls.)
BillShrink notes that sometimes consumers are better served choosing cheaper plans with mobile-to-mobile calling features over more expensive plans that allow customers to call a set number of people for free. If the people you call most frequently, for instance, are all cell phone users who are already in your mobile-to-mobile calling network, it may make little sense to upgrade to a pricier plan.
The Prepaid Alternative
For consumers who barely use their cell phones but don't want to get rid of them, the biggest savings may come from swapping traditional contract plans for prepaid phone plans, which allow consumers to pay in advance for the number of minutes they anticipate using.
According to BillShrink, a consumer who uses their cell phone only five days a month and for 50 minutes total would spend $10 a month on an AT&T "Pay As You Go Unlimited Talk" plan.
Compare that to one of the least expensive traditional plans available -- Sprint's "Basic 200" plan, which allows 200 "anytime" minutes as well as free calls on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weeknights. The Sprint plan costs $29.99 per month, about $20 more than what the consumer would spend on the prepaid plan.