I’m going to tell you how to make dramatic cuts to your phone bill, without sacrificing services.  You can save even more money if you go with a low-end or older phone.  If you want the latest Samsung Galaxy or iPhone, you’re limited to one of the big four: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile.

While many of the major carriers’ plans have changed since I wrote this in 2013, the basic takeaway is still the same – family plans are the way to go if you want to save big money and stay with a major carrier (and you don’t necessarily have to be in the same family).

1. If You Are Okay with an Older Phone…

But first, if you’re okay with an older phone, or non-Samsung/Apple phone, you can get massive savings.

Straight Talk from Walmart offers the previous-generation Samsung and Apple phones for $45 per month. But, they have some other caveats, like roaming charges and limited coverage area for Android phones. So, they are not exactly in the same class as the big four, but they offer dramatic savings (basically 50% off if you have your own phone), so they might be worth checking out.

Republic Wireless has a variety of Motorola phones and uses the Sprint network. Plans start at $10/month for voice only, to $25/month for unlimited 3G and $40/month for unlimited 4G. Several readers have told me they swear by Republic Wireless! Republic Wireless is an an awesome deal if you don’t need a Samsung or Apple phone!

Metro PCS offers lower-end Samsung phones with plans starting at $30/month (as of this writing) for unlimited talk, text, and data, although the data is slowed after 1GB.

2. If You Don’t Talk That Much…

Ting is a cell phone service provider where you only pay for as much as you use. Go to their site and plug in your usage numbers from your last three bills to see if it can save you money.  I talk on my cell phone for about 500 minutes per month, send and receive about 500 texts (wow, I had no idea it was that many), and use about 500MB of data.  With these usage numbers, I could save about $100 per year by switching to Ting vs. T-Mobile.

So, plug in your numbers and see if Ting can save you money.

If neither of these two options works for you, let’s talk about how to save money with the major carriers. In the analysis below, I’ll concentrate on the big four.

3. If You Want One of the “Big Four”

For those who want to stay with the “big four” (Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T), I went through and compared prices from these carriers  for a single-person plan.  Each plan was slightly different, but for the most part they offered unlimited everything (with some caveats).  Here are the monthly costs as of June 2013, not including taxes and fees:

Cell Phone Plans

There are two columns for T-Mobile because they have “contract-free” pricing, which means that after you pay off your phone, your monthly cell phone bill goes down.  So, the first T-Mobile bar is the cost while you are paying off your phone.  The second bar is the cost after you pay it off.  (You can pay it off by paying $20/month for two years or all at once).

So, right off the bat, if you’re at Verizon, AT&T or Sprint, you can save at least $10/month by switching to T-Mobile.  Then, after your phone is paid off, you save much more ($20 to $40/month!)

Here are the caveats though. T-Mobile’s coverage is decent, but quite not as good as Verizon’s or AT&T’s. If you live in a big city, T-Mobile’s coverage will be fine. If you live in a remote area, check with your friends about their coverage.  One mitigating factor: if you get a modern Android phone on T-Mobile, you might be able to use Wi-Fi to make and receive normal phone calls, so if you have a Wi-Fi network at home or at work, you don’t need to worry about coverage in those locations. Check your home Wi-Fi speed.  If your download and upload speeds are above 0.25MBPS with Max Pause less than 10ms and Quality of Service greater than 85%, you should be able to use Wi-Fi calling using your Wi-Fi.

Second, your current phone might not be compatible with T-Mobile’s network. If you wanted to get the plan pricing that doesn’t include the cost of a new phone, make sure your phone is compatible with their network first. For example, Verizon iPhones won’t work on T-Mobile.

But overall, I really like T-Mobile’s “no contract” idea. I don’t get a new phone every two years, so I will be able to reap the benefits.

If you do want to get a new phone though, T-Mobile will save you money there too.  At Verizon, you have to put down $200 for a 16GB iPhone 5. At T-Mobile, you put down $150. For 32GB, it’s $250 and $300 respectively. For a 16GB Samsung Galaxy S4, you have to put down $200 at Verizon and only $99 at T-Mobile!

4. If You Are Willing to Share Your Plan…

As I mentioned, the cell carriers have cut all kinds of discounts in favor of “unlimited” everything. But, there is one area that still offers massive discounts: family plans.

Now, if you are single, don’t dismiss this too soon.  You don’t actually need to be in the same family to use a family plan.  The main thing is that the bill goes to one address.  You each get separate phone numbers.  Perhaps you could go in with a trusted friend?  Or, how about your parents or grandparents?  Extended family?  Cousins, aunts, uncles?  Keep an open mind here, because the savings are dramatic.

Let’s look at the pricing including 2-person and 3-person family plans:

Cell Phone Family Plans

Look at the right side of the chart.  If you go with a family plan under T-Mobile with one other person, you’re each spending $40/month or half of any other one-person plan!  If you go in with two other people, you’re spending $30/month for your cell phone bill, saving $50/month or $600 per year over any single-person plan!!

What could you do with an extra $600 per year?  You can have up to five people in the T-Mobile family plan and the savings improve even more.

Now, these savings assume the cell phone is paid off, but there are still some good savings even after you add in the $20/month to pay off your phone.

Okay, there are some other caveats with the T-Mobile family plans though. First, all of the phone numbers have to be in the same area code and T-Mobile market. This might be problematic.

Second, as I’ve already mentioned, the bill goes to one address. But, since the plan offers unlimited everything (data is slowed after 500MB), there is no danger of overage charges. You can simply divide your monthly bill with your “family”.

So, think about these limitations and see if the family plan is workable for you. If so, you could save a bundle on your cell phone bill!

5. Ask for Unpublished Lower-Rate Plans

The cell phone companies like to tout their “unlimited” standard plans. But, they just might have some unpublished cheaper plans.  These have limitations that you might be able to live with.

For example, when shopping for a plan for my parents, the salesperson insisted that we were getting the cheapest plan, which was an unlimited plan.  Only after talking to the manager did we find out that there indeed was a cheaper plan with limited data / minutes that would be fine for my parents. This will save them hundreds of dollars per year. These are usually not published or advertised.  Ask the manager.

6. Use Your Employer’s Discounts

If you work for a big company, check to see if they offer discounted phone plans for their employees.  Some of the previous companies that I’ve worked for have offered these.  Thanks to reader Kanwar for this tip!

How about other discounts for active duty military or educators? Ask what is available.

7. Negotiate for Freebies!

While the price of the plan might not be negotiable (or maybe it is.. try calling customer service for best results), there are other ways you can negotiate with salespeople eager to close the deal.  Ask if you can get the activation fee and any other fees waived as part of the deal. Ask for a free case, screen protector, or other accessories. I love freebies! I was able to get a free case. Hey, it might not be much, but it’s something!

8. Drop the Insurance

The salespeople always push the $10 (or so) monthly cell phone insurance. I usually get it when I first get a new phone, just because it would suck to lose or break a brand new phone. But, I always cancel it about a year later, because at that point, the value of the phone has diminished. If you are very prone to losing or breaking your phone, insurance might be worth it. If not, you’ll save over $120 per year or more.

9. Beware of Extra Costs and Fine Print!

When I took my parents to the Sprint store to get a new phone, the salesperson said that they were giving away a free Samsung tablet with the plan.  It turns out it wasn’t free and we had to go through a huge ordeal to get it corrected. Beware of tricks like this to inflate your bill!

The salespeople also will push accessories.  If you can get them for free, then great.  Otherwise, get cases and screen protectors from Amazon or other sources where they are insanely cheaper!

10. Live with an Older Device

A new premium Apple or Android phone usually costs around $600, or around $200 month down and $20/month until it’s paid off.  The longer you can live with your current phone after it’s paid off, the more money you will save.

Bonus: Trade in Your Old Phone

Your old phone might have some trade-in value. When I traded in my parents’ old iPhone 4’s at Sprint, they gave us some Bluetooth speakers which I was able to sell on eBay to recoup some of the cost. Or, you might want to just sell your old phone on eBay.

Let me know about other tips you’ve found to save money on your cell phone bill!

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