Slash Your Phone Costs

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Want to hear a shocker? My family ran up nearly $2700 in phone bills over the last 12 months. And that doesn't include new cell phones, or our landline-based DSL Internet access.

Why so much? We have two adults and two adolescents. That's four cell phones and lots of text messages. We also have two landlines--one for the family and the other for my home office.

Like just about everyone these days, I need to save money, so I set out to find ways to lower our telephone expenses. Here's how I went about it, and how you can do the same.

Lock Down Cell Phone Costs

Cell phones are the biggest expense in our family--our bills tally more than $160 most months. They're probably the biggest phone expense in your household, as well.

But before you can cut down your cell phone costs, you need to find out what you're paying for. You should start by examining your last cell bill, but it won't be easy--our most recent Verizon bill ran 34 pages, and required a translator.

I found more information, in easier-to-read form, on Verizon's Web site. If you're a Verizon user, you can log in to the site with your user name and password. Click the My Bill tab, and then, staying on the Bill Summary tab, click the Voice link. A pop-up will show you how many minutes each family member used during that month, plus the total. You can check other past bills, as well.

This information led me to an important discovery: We regularly used between 500 and 600 anytime minutes a month--far less than the 1400 we were paying for. Right there was a way to save money.

But how much could we save? That wasn't on the bill.

Which brings us to that translator I mentioned above. To really know what you're paying for, you have to call your carrier and fight your way through push-button hell until you get an actual human being.

The human being I got (who was very nice and who understood my need to cut expenses) told me I would save $20 a month by going down to 700 minutes. She also said that I could save another $30 by eliminating our unlimited texting.

Taking $20 off a $160 phone bill doesn't sound like much, but it's a start. You can also reduce cell phone costs by attacking the usage charges that vary every month. Here are a few tips.

Keep an eye on the minutes: Most companies offer several ways for you to learn how many minutes you've used up so far on a billing cycle. For example, Verizon users can dial #646 for a free text message.

Block music downloads and applications: Frequently, kids discover that they can download music and play games on their phone, but they don't consider that it will show up on the phone bill. And anyone can accidentally access the Internet and incur a charge.

Shop for better rates: Comparing plans is easy, but moving an entire family to a new carrier can be heartbreakingly expensive. If you added family members to your current plan at different times, each phone number may have a different contract end date. At no one time would you be able to move everyone to another carrier without incurring multiple termination fees. For a family of four, those charges could run into hundreds of dollars.

The solution? Wait until everyone's contract runs out before you upgrade anyone's phone or change the plan. Then everyone will be in sync.

Consider a prepaid plan: Think of this advice as a subset of "Shop for better rates." If you're using fewer than 200 minutes a month, a prepaid plan is probably your best option.

Watch who you call: 800 numbers aren't toll-free when called from a cell phone--unless you do so on a weekend. And international calls, even to Canada, are outrageously expensive. On the other hand, calls to other cell phones attached to the same carrier may be unlimited.

Make sure everyone knows the rules: No long, conversational phone calls before 9:00 p.m. on weekdays (or whenever the particular time is with your service). Keep texting to a minimum, too. (Okay, I admit that we gave up on that one.)

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