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How to lower your cell phone bill

Despite the move to unlimited data and texting plans, many people are still shocked when they open up their monthly cell phone bill. (And not in a good way!) With voice and data overages, to say nothing of unexpected roaming and international charges, it’s easy to be surprised to the tune of several hundred dollars.

Yet smartphones and cell phones have become so essential to our daily lives that we rarely even bother to look at the detail of the bill or question where some of the charges come from. Like electricity and gas, the cell phone has become a utility that has to be paid for, no matter what the cost.

Yet it doesn't have to be that way. There are a number of simple things we – and our families – can do to bring that cell phone bill back under control. Here are 8 ways to start saving:

1. Switch to a pay-as-you-go plan

If you are operating within a strict budget, then a pay-as-you-go plan is the perfect solution. You will never pay for minutes or data that you don't need and you will never have to worry about those dreaded overage charges. Most of the big carriers have pay-as-you-go plans and smaller players like BoostMobile and PagePlus Cellular also offer no-contract plans that will suit most people's needs. Some carriers will let you keep your own phone and switch to a pay-as-you-go plan when your current plan expires. Others will insist you buy a phone but that can still end up saving you a bundle.

2. Understand your existing plan

Checking and understanding your existing plan is perhaps the biggest money-saving move you can make. Although most people blindly pay their cell phone bills without checking the charges, cell phone companies do make mistakes and have been known to add in extra charges that aren't in the contract. Plus, understanding your existing contract is the first step to getting on a plan that will save you money.

3. Consider a friends and family plan

If your spouse or kids have cell phones, it often pays to switch to a family plan, where minutes are grouped and family calls are free. All the main carriers have friends and family options and many of them will throw in a second or third phone for free when you sign up. Plus, if you have tweens or teens in the house, make sure everyone is covered by an unlimited texting plan!

4. Make use of free minutes

Virtually all cell phone plans feature unlimited free calling on nights and weekends. If you can defer calls to these free calling periods, you can save those precious daytime minutes for when it matters the most. Even if you don't directly save on your cell phone bill, you can often save on your house phone by using your cell phone for evening and weekend calls.

5. Monitor data charges

There are several good apps that you can download to keep an eye on your data usage and make sure you are not going to go over your monthly allocation. The iPhone has a built-in data monitor that can be re-set on a monthly basis. You can also request text alerts from your carrier when you approach your monthly limits for both voice and data.

6. Set up an international plan before you go abroad

One of the biggest shocks on a cell phone bill are the roaming and international voice and data charges when you come back from an overseas vacation. Make sure you set up an international plan before you travel to minimize these charges. Your carrier will also make sure your phone will work in the countries that you are visiting.

7. Utilize free in-network calls

Analyze your calls and know who you speak to the most. If you have 2 or 3 close friends or family that represent a large percentage of your call volume, then get everyone to think about switching to a carrier with free in-network calling – it could save everyone a lot of  money!

8. Shop around

Make sure you compare plans when your contract comes up for renewal. Visit several stores and tell them exactly what you are looking for. Competition is fierce and you will be surprised to see how much each company will be able to improve on your existing deal.

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