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Finding the Right Family Plan

Cellphones have become a back-to-school essential, but families buying new phones or adding kids to their plan this fall ought to take time first to review their bill. Picking the right family plan is no easy feat. Kelli Grant, Senior Consumer Reporter for SmartMoney.com, suggests some things you should consider before choosing your plan.

First, be sure to check handset requirements. Be cautious giving in to a teen's plea for the latest handset. Many, especially Smartphones, come with voice and data plan requirements. Some carriers dictate that if one person on the plan has a data plan, everyone does. So buying a new phone could cost you hundreds of dollars extra each year.

Also, assess an individual vs. total usage. Carriers may let you add on text and data on a per-line basis, or as coverage for everyone on the plan. Look at recent bills to gauge the family's usage as a whole, as well as each individual's. That can help you decide whether to cover one line or everyone.

Be sure to check was the definition of "family." For some plans, "family" includes anyone living in the same household. That loose definition could benefit unmarried couple and roommates. So take advantage of the extra savings.

Review the minutes required for your plan. An unlimited plan isn't necessarily the best deal. Free nights, weekends and in-network calls give consumers a relatively small window to actually use plan minutes. Adding lines to an unlimited plan is significantly pricier than adding them to a limited-minute plan. On AT&T, additional lines beyond the first two in a family plan cost $10 per month on plans with up to 2,100 shared minutes and rollover. On unlimited plans, they cost $50.

And finally, take caution when you switch. If you determine that you're on the wrong plan, switching can be done quickly and without extra fees. But if you find you're with the wrong carrier, crunch the numbers to determine how expensive it will be to switch. Most people on the plan will be on different contract cycles because they have been added at different times. Switching almost certainly entails an early termination fee or three.

For more tips on finding the right cell phone plan and other consumer advice, click here.
by Kelli Grant and Jenn Eaker