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Slash your wireless bill

| Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

Chances are you're wasting gobs of money on wireless phone service because you chose the wrong plan.

The problem likely will become more widespread with the introduction of unlimited calling plans, which are appropriate for very few customers, according to Validas, a wireless-bill analysis firm.

In a study of 10,000 wireless bills, Validas found 80 percent of wireless customers pay too much because they're on the wrong plan and that unlimited plans are appropriate for just 7 percent of customers. This echoes other studies that show customers waste money by purchasing too many minutes that go unused each month.

Fortunately, you can right-size your wireless spending. Here's how:

• Analyze your bill. Two of the best Web sites for analyzing your cell bill are MyValidas.com by Validas and BillShrink.com. It's worthwhile to use both.

• Figure out on your own which plan is right for you can be daunting, especially when taking into account free mobile-to-mobile minutes, nights and weekend calling times, texting, and free calls to a few favorite numbers that many plans now allow. And sometimes your own bill doesn't give you enough information.

"It's very difficult, almost impossible, to understand your call detail and apply it to what's available in the marketplace," said Tom Pepe, Validas chairman and co-founder. "You have a smart phone and a dumb bill."

MyValidas.com analyzes your wireless phone bill, which you upload in PDF format or import using your online sign-in for your carrier's Web site. It will tell you your potential savings for free, but a complete report costs $5.

The advantage of BillShrink.com is it's free. It makes money if you decide to switch carriers using its site. It, too, can automatically pull information from your online bill, or you can manually answer a few questions about your wireless use.

The downside of both sites is they consider only the major wireless carriers and neither considers prepaid service.

• Also, consider call quality in your area. For example, BillShrink.com will often recommend T-Mobile, which is generally the least expensive. But cheaper is not better if you don't have a wireless signal. Sites such as Mobiledia (cellreception.com) can help determine whether you'll have good coverage.

• Try prepaid. Far more people should not have a monthly contract at all. Using a prepaid phone is often cheaper. That used to be true only for low-volume users, of 400 minutes or less. But now, even high-volume users might save, according to Consumer Reports. With prepaid, you buy the phone, which is usually $10 to $60, and you buy minutes to load onto the phone. No monthly bill, taxes or tack-on fees.

The downside of prepaid is you won't get the latest phones, and they're mostly good for voice calls and texting, not Web surfing, e-mail and other advanced functions. Minutes also expire. The more you buy at a time, the longer they last.

National prepaid carriers typically rated highest include TracFone and sister company Net10, T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Net10 has the easiest pricing to understand. Each minute costs 10 cents regardless of how many you buy.

• Avoid "don't worry" syndrome. A common reason people give for choosing a large bucket of minutes or an unlimited plan is so "I don't have to worry about it." Peace of mind is valuable, but what's wrong with going over your allotted minutes once in a while• It's often cheaper to pay the high per-minute rate for a few overage minutes than bump up to a monthly plan with more minutes you'll hardly ever use but have to pay for every month. For example, if you have an unusual month and go over by 100 minutes at 45 cents each, that's an extra $45 you must pay. But over a year, that's just $3.75 per month if that's the only time you exceed your minutes. You're not doing anything wrong or violating your contract by using overage minutes.

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