People love to brag about how little they pay for their cell phone plan. But ask them how they got a rate so low, and they’re bound to tell you one of two things: Either they’re on a family plan, or they’ve been on the same plan for 14 years and have been grandfathered into some sort of amazing unlimited service.
But you, the person reading this? You’re here because you didn’t get grandfathered into a super cheap phone plan. And you don’t have a family with a plan to latch onto–or you don’t want the pressure of having to maintain the relationships necessary to participate.
Luckily, these aren’t the only ways to save money on your cell phone bill. And you can get on a more budget-friendly plan without having to sacrifice your slick smartphone or give up your phone number.
Do a plan audit
Before you do anything, do a contract audit, said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at DealNews.com. “Perform an audit yourself and see if the contract is still worth it. Are you still using all the features you have? Do you need less data? Auditing your situation before your contract is up allows you to contact your carrier and try to negotiate for a different plan, whether that means downsizing or upscaling,” she said.
If you think you’re ready to switch carriers, make sure to find out which providers are compatible with your devices and offer network coverage that works for you. You can usually do both on any provider’s website.
Choose a low-cost carrier
Low-cost cellular providers used to be a good deal, but came with a distinctly low-budget aesthetic. But that’s no longer the case, said Michael Timmermann, cell phone expert at Clark.com.
While budget carriers may have only been a good proposition for city dwellers in the past, now Timmermann says the coverage is now almost indistinguishable from standard coverage. Over the past two years, Timmermann has tested 12 low-cost cell phone service providers.
The most noticeable difference between standard service and low-cost providers these days is whether your data gets deprioritized during high-traffic times, which your plan’s fine print might mention. “When the network is really congested, you might have slower data, compared to people who have one of the big carriers,” Timmermann said. But he’s run speed tests during all his phone service experiments, and said, “It hasn’t made a difference in how I actually use my phone.”
And while you won’t find the flashy free-phone deals you can often get from the “big four” carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon), the savings usually make it worth paying for a phone on your own.
Most of these low-cost companies are mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), which means they don’t own their own infrastructure but operate off one of the big networks. “If you like the network you’re on, look for a low-cost cell phone provider that uses the same network,” Timmermann said. “Chances are, you’re not going to have any problems because it’s using the same towers. Also, there’s a greater chance you’ll be able to keep your phone if you’re already on that network.”
Timmermann ranks Visible (on the Verizon network) Mint Mobile (uses T-Mobile’s) and Total Wireless (another with Verizon) among his favorites. Each offers monthly service for $40 or less. Visible even has “party pay,” which gives you a discount for linking up with other Visible users—you don’t even need to know who they are. How’s that for a modern twist on the traditional family plan?
He also mentioned Tello, which offers unlimited talk and text on Sprint’s network along with one GB of data for $10 per month. He said it works great if you can rely on WiFi to surf and use apps.
Ramhold also recommended Google Fi, which gets high marks for its international service as well as its pay-as-you-go options for data. The only catch is you must use an Android phone—no iPhones allowed.
Downgrade to prepaid
Your other option is to swap out your typical post-paid plan—where you pay your bill after using services–to a prepaid plan.
These plans often offer comparable talk, text and data services to their big-time counterparts, at about half the price. Timmermann said one thing to be aware of with prepaid plans is that you often lose the top-notch quality service you often find with traditional plans—especially if you’ve joined a carrier that doesn’t have physical locations.
Negotiate with your carrier
If you really want to stay with one of the big guys, Timmermann recommends taking a competing offer to your current carrier to see if they’ll match it.
There are also often special plans for seniors, military members, or even through your employer, so check for anything that might apply to you before making a switch.
If you want to try negotiating with your current provider, “Do your research ahead of time and note things like how many minutes you use every month and how much data you use,” Ramhold said. Compare that usage to what other companies are offering before talking to yours. “If you can point to your specific usage and inform them what other reps are offering, you might be able to find a better deal without leaving.”
Time your switch wisely
When you’re ready to change your plan, Timmermann said to make sure you time it right. Don’t wait until two days before your next billing cycle to try to get off your current plan. “Give yourself at least a week, because that’s going to ensure that you have enough time to get your SIM card, work out any issues with your phone, and be able to port your number,” he said.
If you wait, you may get charged another month with your regular carrier, “And they’re usually not going to refund you when you cancel for that last month.”