Not all that long ago they were considered utterly optional, but today cell phones have become absolute necessities for many workers and family members. The convenience they provide can be unparalleled — that is, until you receive your bill in the mail. The following tips can help you avoid paying far too much or getting stuck in an onerous long-term contract.
1 Make sure your new phone actually works. You will have a very short window of time — likely 14 days max — to return your new cell phone and get out of your contract if you run into any problems. That means you have to put your phone and cellular service through a thorough test drive quickly. Never buy a new phone right before you leave town. Instead, try using your phone in all rooms of your home, in your yard, on your commute, at your job and at your all your usual haunts. If the service is spotty or calls keep getting dropped, return the phone right away.
2 It is possible to avoid contracts completely. One way to do so — and to avoid the possible specter of early-termination fees — is to use a prepaid cell phone. (Note: The prepaid approach can be a great option to consider for your kids.) But if you do end up going the standard contract route and you have more than one person in your household, you generally stand to save big time by signing everyone up on the same plan and phone bill.
3 Be aware of other potential escape routes. If you just don't want a prepaid phone, there are tricks you can try to release yourself from a wearisome contract. You can swap your phone and your phone plan with someone else online through a trading site such as CellTradeUSA.com (www.celltradeusa.com). Or you can call a customer service representative — and his or her supervisor — and attempt to negotiate your early-termination fees in a calm, reasoned way, especially if you have a legitimate cause for complaint.
4 Watch for upgrade and activation fees. If you change phones for whatever reason, be sure to keep an eye on your bill for the next few months. You could be socked with an "upgrade" fee in the $18 to $40 range, even if you paid the full retail price for your new phone, as well as an "activation" fee in the $35 range that you didn't see coming. If you spot those fees, you can try asking to have them waived.
5 Opt for unlimited texting, especially if you have kids. Texting can get out of control pretty quickly for people of all ages, but teens constitute the ultimate texting demographic. In 2008, the average young teen sent more than 1,700 texts a month. Bearing this in mind, unlimited texting makes sense for many families.
6 Just say no to "premium text messaging." Be painfully aware, though, that unlimited texting only allows you (and your beloved children) to do standard text messaging. It doesn't cover a whole other category of texting known as premium texting, which can cost as much as $1 or more per text. Premium texting comes into play with some game shows, dating services, joke-of-the-day subscriptions and special ringtone services, to name just a few examples. You can ask most cellular providers to disable all premium text messaging.
7 Consider choosing the most minutes you'd ever use. Get in the habit of checking your bill and/or your cell phone company's Web site to make sure you're not close to exceeding your monthly allotment of minutes. Be very careful to give yourself enough minutes so you won't inadvertently go overboard. This is important, because "excess" minutes can cost you 600 to 800 percent more than normal minutes.
8 In times of chaos, try upgrading your minutes temporarily. You may know yourself well enough to have a pretty accurate idea of how many minutes and texts you'd ever use in a normal month. If so, sign up for that — but be aware that everything can go haywire if a family crisis hits. In such situations, try to remember to call your provider and ask for a temporary upgrade of minutes that you can undo once things calm down.
9 Inquire about ultra-rock-bottom plans. Are you someone who wants to have a cell phone handy for emergencies only? Then call around and ask more than one cellular provider about inexpensive deals that never get promoted. It's likely that you could score a very low-minute, free-weekend, low-cost plan.
10 Ask about other deals. Some providers offer deals "for new customers only," but you may be able to score those same deals yourself by requesting them in a persistent, yet polite, way.
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at email@example.com.
Sources: Stop Getting Ripped Off by Bob Sullivan; the Red Tape Chronicles (http://redtape.msnbc.com/)