Cellphone confusion could cost you

Picking the right plan so you don't pay too much


Between talk time and texting, the Boone family pays about $240 a month on their cellphone bill.  They'd like to pay less but when it comes to finding the best plan, "It's a puzzle, within a puzzle, within a puzzle," said Amy Boone.

A pricing puzzle because the four major US cellular carriers combined offer about 200 different plans.

We worked with Validas, a mobile analytics firm, that crunched the numbers and found that within those plans, there are also thousands of combinations available for options like messaging, data services and device protection.

"You have to have choice for consumers, but then that choice creates confusion because when people want to buy they want things simple," said Todd Dunphy, President of Validas.

Dunphy says "plan confusion" often results in "wireless waste." That's the difference between what you pay for your mobile plan and what you actually use.  

Validas found last year, Americans overpaid more than $52 billion, and 83% of users with high data plan limits didn't use all they paid for.

"People are over-buying in the fear that they're gonna go over, but in fact what they keep doing is never using that- those gigabytes they're buying," said Dunphy.

Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission's pressure on carriers, 97% of wireless customers now get "alerts" if they're about to exceed their plan limits, so there's no overage charge "bill shock". 

Dunphy says some mobile providers are responding to customer calls for simplicity.   There are now 20% fewer plans than there were just two years ago.   But he says providers still need to give users choices.  

"They have different sets of users and people that need all kinds of different things. And, you know, the one-size-fits-all is not going to work," said Dunphy.

So how do you know if you're on the right plan?   Most major cellular providers websites offer plan calculators.   You can also call your carrier for an analysis.   The National Consumers League recommends reviewing three months worth of bills.

"Are you using less voice than you thought you were going to? Are you using more texts that you thought you would? See if there's a way that you can adjust your cell phone plan or maybe switch carriers to find one that better meets your needs for a cheaper cost," advised John Breyault with the National Consumers League.

Validas did an analysis of the Boone's bill and found they don't need "unlimited data".   And simply changing to a "shared data plan" should save them $400 a year.  

Amy Boone is happy about the extra money she'll now get to keep in her pocket, and is thankful for the help.

 "It's a huge headache to try to figure this stuff out," she said. "I think a lot of people just let it go." 

Many carriers recently updated their plans so now is a perfect time to check and see if there's a better one for you.   

Some other ways to save:  

  • Use wi-fi when you can to surf the web from your phone. that saves on data.  
  • If you have cellphone insurance, look closely how much you're really paying over the life of your contract, and also at the deductible, and make sure it's worth it. 
  • And remember, any fee is negotiable. If you're a longtime customer, point that out to the sales person.

Four major cell carrier's calculators:

  • http://www.att.com/att/planner/
  • http://www.t-mobile.com/Tools/MBCalculator.aspx
  • http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/splash/shareEverythingCalculator.jsp?intcmp=VZW-VNT-SE-SHAREEVERYTHING
  • http://shop.sprint.com/content/datacalculator/
  • FCC Information on "Bill Shock":