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How to choose the right cell phone plan

By TheTechDad

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to choose the right smartphone. My advice was to first choose a wireless carrier and then worry about what kind of phone you are going to get. Because it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles your shiny new smartphone has, if you are constantly bedeviled by poor service.

But after you have selected a carrier and decided on a phone, there is one more very important step to take: you need to choose a plan. Unfortunately, most people look forward to the task of selecting a wireless plan the way they regard a visit to the dentist or doing their taxes. That’s because wireless plans have a reputation for being expensive and difficult to understand.

Unlike other utilities, where we pay just one rate for whatever we use, the charges for cell phone use are variable. Plus, we have to estimate ahead of time what we are likely to use. Most of us just about got our arms around the number of voice minutes we needed, when along came texting. Now we have to estimate how much data we need for all those e-mails, Facebook updates, music downloads, and YouTube videos.

But choosing a cell phone plan doesn’t have to be that complicated. The wireless carriers have made huge strides in trying to simplify their plans, while still giving us the flexibility to choose something that’s just right for us. They have also introduced monitoring tools to help us stay within our chosen limits.

The key to finding the right plan is to ask yourself a few simple questions:

Who is going to use the phone?

There is a huge difference in the way a cell phone is going to used by grandma, your teenage daughter and by you. While grandma may only need her phone for emergencies and a few personal calls, your teen could be texting hundreds of times a day. And if you’re a businesswoman or just a busy mom, then you’re probably calling, texting, e-mailing and surfing the web all day long.

Stop and make a few notes of exactly how your phone is going to be used. If you are buying more than one phone, make separate notes for each one. However the phones are used, there are plans that will match that usage and minimize your costs.

Does it make sense to have a shared plan?

If everyone in your household has a phone, it may make sense to have a shared plan. For example, Verizon offers a Nationwide Family Share Plan that includes pre-arranged anytime minutes and unlimited messaging for up to 6 different lines

Where will the phone be used?

Most carriers have moved beyond local and regional calling plans and now offer anytime, anywhere minutes, along with a variety of messaging and data options. But you do need to consider if you will be calling overseas a lot or taking the phone abroad. Most carriers offer special plans for calling Mexico and Canada and will have additional plans for other international dialing. If you go abroad, the key is to contact your carrier ahead of time. Most carriers will be happy to install a temporary international plan that will keep your costs under control.

How much data do you need?

This is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the new world of smartphones and 4G networks. Just exactly how much data does an e-mail consume? What about uploading photos? Downloading music? Streaming movies?

Here, you do need to be careful, because data overages are expensive and can build up in a hurry. Most carriers seem to have settled on 2GB as the standard monthly data allowance, and if you are just sending e-mails and doing a bit of web surfing, that should be plenty. If you stream movies, download a lot of music, or play a lot of online games, then you may need more. (Verizon has a very cool data usage calculator that can help you with your estimate.)

Once you have the answers to these questions, you are ready to start shopping for a plan. Visit your carrier’s web site and browse the various plans available. Don’t be afraid to visit your local carrier’s store and discuss your needs face-to-face.

Remember, selecting the right plan can save you hundreds of dollars annually. It can also give you peace of mind: there’s nothing worse than opening the monthly phone bill and finding out you have been hit with lots of extra charges. With just a little upfront planning, you can sit back and relax!

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