When you think about the advanced technology and massive infrastructure that go into making sure hundreds of millions of people can communicate and access the internet wirelessly on their phones no matter where they are, $150 a month for a cellular plan seems like a steal.
However, if you're looking at your finances and watching your money run away like a cat running from a bath, any amount of money is a serious burden. You want to bring the cost of that cellular plan down as much as possible without sacrificing convenience.
Since voice calling and text messages are unlimited with most plans now, the main cost driver is the amount of cellular data you want each month. If you need less data, you can get a cheaper plan. It's that simple.
Except it isn't that simple. If you aren't careful, you might do something on your phone without realizing it that blows through a big chunk of your data and leaves you paying extra for more to get through the rest of the month. Even if you don't do something, your phone might be using data on its own.
I'm going to give you the inside track on what gobbles up your data and how you can put a stop to it so you can save money.
1. Stop the social media madness
When you're uploading that hilarious photo or amazing video to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or somewhere else to share with your friends and family, remember that it's using data. An 8-megapixel photo on your smartphone can approach 5 megabytes, and some smartphones have more than 8 megapixels.
If you upload just 100 photos a month (not impossible if you travel a lot or have kids or pets), that's half a gigabyte of your data gone. It gets worse with video.
Even a short video can be dozens of megabytes, and might even top 100. You start uploading those and your data plan is going to disappear fast.
It isn't just uploading though. When you look at photos and videos on social media, your phone is actually downloading them. Now, they won't take up as much data as they would if you uploaded them because sites compress them.
Still, every photo album you cycle through or video of your friend's cute kid you watch is taking up massive amounts of data. That's one of the reasons people were annoyed when Facebook debuted auto-playing videos. Even if you stop it after a few seconds, that's still using up data you might need for something else.
Fortunately, turning off auto-playing video is simple. In Android, open the Facebook app and go to Settings. Change "Videos Auto-play" to "Off." You can also set it to "Wi-Fi only," so they only auto-play when you're connected to Wi-Fi, but I prefer to control when videos start.
For iOS, go to Settings >> Facebook and tap Settings. Under "Video" tap Auto-play. You can choose "Off" or set it to "Wi-Fi only."
The general rule is that looking through social media is fine over cellular. However, save the photo album and video viewing and uploads until you're home on a Wi-Fi connection.
2. Stop the non-social media mayhem
Next, I'm going to talk about non-social media, specifically music and movies. A lot of people buy the cheapest version of their smartphone, which means it usually has 16GB of storage.
Once you factor in the operating system, apps and photos, that's not a whole lot of room left for a large music library or full-length movies. Instead of trying to cram everything in, many people just use a streaming music site, such as Pandora or Spotify, or a streaming video service, such as Netflix, YouTube or Hulu, for entertainment. In fact, I recommend that as a way to save space, but you have to remember it does come with a price.
At high quality, streaming music uses up just over 2MB of data a minute. At that rate, you would burn through a 2GB data plan in 40 hours. So, if you listen while you're at work, your data plan will last you for one week.
When it comes to movies things are much worse. A Netflix movie uses 1GB an hour for standard quality and 3GB an hour for HD. So, your 2GB data plan will let you watch most of a single movie at standard quality. Even a 10GB data plan would only get you three movies a month, assuming you do nothing else with your phone.
In short, if you're going to be watching any more than a short YouTube clip here or there, hop onto a nearby Wi-Fi connection.
3. Stop the chatting
I'm not talking about text messaging or chatting. Texts use practically no data. In fact, you could text the entire works of Shakespeare and only use up 5MB of data.
No, the real danger is picture messaging and video chatting. If you've been keeping up so far, you know that pictures are worth several times more than a thousand words of data use. So, trading pictures back and forth with friends is going to eat into your data plan, especially since most carriers are now using data for this rather than the older texting system.
Video chatting through FaceTime or Skype is even worse. It isn't quite as bad as streaming a movie from Netflix, but you can still put a dent in your data. An HD Skype call can burn around 11MB a minute, meaning you could use up a 2GB data plan in just three hours.
Again, if you're going to be messaging your life in pictures or chatting using video, save it for when you have a Wi-Fi connection.
4. Stop apps from misbehaving
Even if you're really careful about what apps you run and what media you stream and download, your data might still be going fast. That's because some apps will use your data to download information throughout the day without asking.
Fortunately, you can make these apps stop.
In Apple, go to Settings >> Cellular. You'll see a list of apps and how much data they've used. A quick swipe of the slider will tell an app not to use data. It will only be active when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. This might be a good idea for something like the App Store to make sure it isn't updating apps in the background.
For Android, go to Settings >> Data Usage and choose the Mobile tab. You'll see how much data you've used for the selected time period and what apps are using most of it. If there's an app hogging data that shouldn't be, tap on it and swipe down to the bottom of the page. Then tap "Restrict background data" to stop that app from grabbing data when you aren't on Wi-Fi.
5. Start using Wi-Fi
I'm sure you've noticed a pattern in each one of these suggestions, and that is to use Wi-Fi instead of your data plan whenever possible. For basic internet browsing and sending text emails, using your data is fine, but anything involving pictures, music and videos is better through Wi-Fi.
Using Wi-Fi, I can usually keep my data use to below 1GB a month without much hassle. And you can find it for free or at a low cost just about anywhere you go. Just load up your phone with an app like WiFiMapper and you're set.