Overpaying for Wireless Service? 10 Tips to Find Cheap Cell Phone Plans

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If the monthly cost of a cell phone plan leaves you counting pennies to cover expenses, you’re not alone. Many households pay an astonishing amount to wireless providers for extensive coverage and unlimited plans.

But are you actually using the cell phone service you’re paying for? A deep dive into the data suggests many Americans could trim their cell phone bill significantly with just a few simple changes.

Most Americans Are Overpaying for Cell Phone Plans

Across the U.S., most households use a major network for their consumer cellular needs. The top three cell phone providers in the country are names you’ll easily recognize: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

According to a report from Whistle Out, the average American pays $160 a month for their current cell phone plan with a major carrier. Yet many are paying for cell phone plans with far more data (and coverage) than they need or use. A rough estimate indicates family cell phone plans with unlimited data may be overpaying by as much as $50 a month.

Cheap Cell Phone Plans Can Still Cost You

Switching carriers to take advantage of affordable cell phone plans can have hidden costs. Low cost plans with poor coverage in your area or an excessive data cap policy can rack up hidden fees that negate your efforts to save money.

Let’s take a closer look at a few things to consider before you jump into a cheap plan, such as how to tell if what you’re being offered is what you and your family actually need in a cell phone plan.

We did the math so you don’t have to. Use our guide to compare across major carriers and see which cheap phone plan works for you.

10 Tips to Help You Find a Cheap Cell Phone Plan

The best cheap phone plans are not created equal. Before you step into a one-size-fits-all approach, here are a few things to consider that could deliver a low cost cell plan that doesn’t skimp on service.

1. Do You Really Need an Unlimited Data Plan?

Unlimited cell phone plans are common, but they’re not always the best choice. Most cell phone users in the U.S. don’t have the kind of data usage that warrants the cost of unlimited data.

Figure out how much data you use before you opt into unlimited data plans. While your use of high-speed data may be way up in recent years, consider whether you now spend more time at home on Wi-Fi and don’t require as much data.

2. Consider a Prepaid Cell Phone Plan

Prepaid plans are a bit of a misnomer because they’re actually pay-as-you-go plans. If your prepaid data plan runs out before the billing cycle ends, you can just add more data or minutes.

If a cheap unlimited plan is in the cards, one of the best cell phone plans for your wallet is a prepaid plan like those from Mint Mobile. It costs as little as $15 per month for Mint Mobile’s unlimited plan as long as you prepay for three months upfront.

3. Would You Use Unlimited Talk or Free International Calling?

If you’re one of the few who chat on the phone or have family in another country, consider a plan that offers unlimited talk or free international calls. Several plans have rollover minutes so if you have long conversations sporadically, you won’t need unlimited talk or unlimited calls.

And pay attention to cell phone plan coverage. T-Mobile’s network has an unlimited international calling plan that starts at just $15 per month and covers over 70 countries. If texting is more your style, look for plans that support unlimited text.

4. You Don’t Have to be Family to be on a Family Plan

Having multiple lines from a major carrier comes at a premium, but just because you’re on a family plan doesn’t mean you’re family. However if you do throw in with friends for a family plan, you’ll still have to designate one trustworthy person as the account holder.

5. Check Coverage Maps for the Major Carriers

Even when cell phone plans promise free roaming, check coverage in your area. Overall, the Verizon network has the most coverage nationally, especially for the kinds of data speed 5G offers, followed closely by AT&T and T-Mobile.

It’s not just a serious hassle to hop on someone’s mobile hotspot (and use their hotspot data) because you’re in a network-free zone again. You can also incur fees cycling on and off roaming.

6. Consider Mobile Virtual Network Operators

A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is a smaller carrier that piggybacks on the network of a larger carrier but usually offers cheaper cell phone plans. And they’re worth checking out if you want a low cost cell phone plan that doesn’t sacrifice coverage. (Service may be slower during peak hours though.)

For instance, MVNOs Visible Wireless and US Mobile use Verizon’s cell phone towers so you can snag Verizon’s superior coverage without the Verizon price tag. Many plans throw in extras like a free sim card when you switch.

7. Are You Bringing Your Own Phone or Do You Need a New Phone?

It is much cheaper to bring your own phone than to roll the cost of a new one into cell phone plans. However, that comes with the caveat that if you’re in the market for a new cell phone, wireless carriers offer promotions that are worth considering.

8. Lean into Promotions but Watch the Fine Print

Promotions are just that: enticements to switch carriers and come on board. But once the promotion is over, will the savings on these cell phone plans still be worth it?

Carefully review the fine print on cell phone promotions and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact the customer service team to get clarification.

9. Can You Get a Discount for Bundling With Streaming Services?

Wireless service providers sometimes offer to bundle with sister services that provide streaming content. A great example is the built-in discounts you’ll get for adding Netflix to T-Mobile’s service or Disney+ to Verizon’s network plan.

10. Don’t Forget About Senior, Student and Military Discounts

You earned that discount, so don’t hesitate to use it. Many cell phone carriers offer senior, student, first responder and service member discounts. Be warned that some of these discounts are from more expensive cell phone providers and you’ll enjoy a lower monthly cost overall with prepaid plans from MVNOs.

The best cheap cell phone is a free cell phone. See if you qualify for the Lifeline Program, which offers free or discounted cell phones to seniors.

How to Choose the Best Cell Phone Plan for Your Family

To recap, when picking out the best low-cost cell phone plan, you’ll want to consider:

  • The network’s coverage in your area
  • Your phone’s compatibility
  • How much data you need
  • The number of lines you need
  • Any additional fees

Most of the best cell phone providers offer a 30-day trial period, so if the coverage or data speeds weren’t what you expected, you can cancel your plan — no questions asked.

Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist, she has written about a wide array of topics including finance, health, politics, education and technology for the last decade.