Last Updated Oct 18, 2010 5:16 PM EDT
The Federal Communications Commission calls it "bill shock": the moment when you get your monthly cell phone bill and, gasp, it's far more than you thought you had to pay based on the monthly plan. One in six of us has experienced this, according to the FCC's survey, and much of it is due to overage or roaming charges.
Here are five ways to keep bill shock to a minimum - and actually save some money:
1. Call Customer Service
Call and ask for a better deal. It costs the companies far less to negotiate with you than to lose you as a customer all together. So cell phone companies have customer retention departments for the purpose of offering you perks, deals and discounts to keep you happy. Mention competitors' deals and that you've been a longtime customer.
2. Monitor Usage
While the FCC is pushing to force cell phone companies to alert us before we exceed our monthly minutes, it's still our responsibility to pay close attention. Otherwise, going over the allotted minutes in your cell plan can cost anywhere from 40 to 50 cents per minute. Reach out to your cell provider to get alerts either via text or by dialing (both free). Verizon users, for example, can call #MIN and get an update via text message. There are also a growing number of free iPhone apps for AT&T customers â€" like Cell Minute Tracker and OverMyMinutes - that help you track usage and monitor your monthly bill.
3. Try Friends & Family Plans
The term "friends and family" can include anyone you know - it could be a roommate, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or even an upstairs neighbor. If there's someone you want to pair up with to qualify for the friends and family rate, the savings could be worth it. Just make sure it's someone you trust: One of you will be on the hook for the entire bill. (You can try to get the bill split up, but the policy varies carrier.) What's the payoff? At T-Mobile, an $60-per-month personal plan drops to $50 when you add another line: a $120 annual savings. Verizon and T-Mobile, meanwhile, have plans that let you add up to five phone numbers that you can connect to free of charge - regardless of the other person's carrier, and even if it's a land line.
4. Use In-Network or Mobile-to-Mobile Minutes
In a similar vein: Ask the people you talk with most who their providers are. If several of them share your carrier - be it AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon â€" you could get free calls to them if you sign up for an "in-network" minutes plan. This can help avoid running over your minutes each month.
5. Go Prepaid
Pay-as-you-go phones typically cost 10 cents per minute plus a small daily access fee - say, $1 each day the phone is used. It's like a cell phone with training wheels - and a smart option if you're on a tight budget, or for parents who want to control their kids' cell phone usage. Just make sure whatever plan you choose allows you to rollover any minutes you don't use to the next month.
More on Moneywatch
- Best Ways to Ditch Your Cell Phone Plan
- 29 Fees We Hate the Most
- Smart Shopping: 5 Tricks to Avoid Impulse Shopping
- Worth the Money? 4 Questions to Ask
- Get Free Stuff All Year Long
- Cheapest Days to Shop Online