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How to find hidden charges on your cellphone bill

How to find hidden charges on your cellphone bill
© Tom Wang | Dreamstime.com

Cellphone bills are pretty annoying, right? Who likes to authorize that payment at the end of the month?

But maybe they're more than annoying. Maybe you're throwing away money on a plan that could be cheaper.

If so, you're not alone: In 2015, ABC reported that the average American spends $1,000 a year on cellphone service, and some researchers estimate that Americans waste $50 billion on minutes and data they never use.

If you're accustomed to a $140 phone bill, you might try some cost-cutting measures, especially if you don't use your phone for anything special, like using Facebook Live repeatedly in the middle of a tundra. Some of these techniques are simple and cooperative, and a sales rep will be happy to help you out. Others are a little more drastic, but they may save you bundles of cash in the end.

Where should you start?

Before you can identify which of these tips (or which combination) will save you the most money, you first need to know what you're currently spending. To do this, you'll need to review your cellphone bill with a fine-toothed comb. And, keep in mind, mobile carriers can sometimes make things confusing. Click here to learn the truth about Verizon Wireless and Sprint's latest cellphone ads.

Every cellular service provider is different, but here are the general areas you should look for:

  • Account summary: Typically, this is where you'll find records of your payment history so you can see how things have changed over time. Are your rates increasing? Go back three to six months to find out.
  • Monthly service charges: To compare plans, you'll need to know this number. This is the cost your mobile service provider charges to connect each line to their network. In your bill, you should see this number itemized for each phone that's connected to your account.
  • Local and extended charges: This area could include charges for overages on minutes used, text messaging, and other limitations that are included in your plan. For example, if you have a plan that only allows 700 minutes per month, and you use 750, you could be charged for that airtime. If you're on a plan that's meeting your needs, ideally, you shouldn't see any charges in this area.
  • Roaming charges: These charges will show up on your bill if you've traveled outside of your local and extended coverage areas, and they can add up quickly. If you're seeing these charges regularly on your bill, then your mobile provider may not offer the best coverage in your area.
  • Other charges and credits: This is a section you should monitor closely at all times. Click here for hidden cellular fees you should watch out for.

How to save:

Now that you understand the key areas of your cellphone bill, it's time to identify areas where you can save money. Here are six ways you can cut costs each month.

1. Join a family plan

These days, millennials tend to join family plans right off the bat. But maybe you've been a lone wolf for a while. You like your provider, you like your phone, but the bills are killing you. Family plans generally allow you to share minutes and data with parents and siblings, which can be very cost-effective, especially if you choose a rollover plan. Although "family plan" is the generic term, you don't necessarily have to be related. You can start a shared plan with a roommate, coworker or significant other.

2. Roll back your service

When we first sign up for a plan, we often overshoot our needs. Why not get the biggest package? Heck, why not get the unlimited plan? We don't necessarily know how much data we use, so we hear "10 GB" and that seems about right. If you're not streaming music or videos, or if you tend to log onto Wi-Fi at home and at work, you may be surprised how little data you use. Most services will let you check your data usage. Pick a typical month, monitor how much you use, and if it's less than you expected, consider switching to a cheaper plan.

Tip within a tip: Have an old cellphone you're not using anymore? Certain older models are actually selling for big cash on eBay. Click here to see which phones can get you top dollar.

3. Look for employee discounts

Some people don't even realize their employers have special deals with service providers. This is especially true among big corporations, but small companies often have partnerships as well. It's worth checking with the administrator if only to get a few bucks knocked off. If you're a little older, don't forget about the senior discount as well.

4. Audit your own account

Signing up for cellphone service can be an exhausting process, and no one expects you to read all of the contract's fine print. That's why you might consider reviewing your account and seeing if you're paying for an add-on you didn't realize you had, and possibly don't even want. The term for this is "cramming," and cellular carriers are notorious for charging extra fees for, say, voicemail. Look over your bill, and even have a sales rep explain what all the costs actually are. You may be able to remove something from your final tab.

Tip within a tip: Don't let your next vacation be ruined by roaming and overage charges. Click here for a traveler's guide to taking your smartphone abroad

5. Switch teams

Big-time carriers will do almost anything to retain their customers, especially if you threaten to go to their competitors. In the past, cellular providers have roped their customers into two-year contracts that instantly renewed, making it difficult and expensive for people to quit. But now that consumers are rejecting those stodgy old contracts, they often have more freedom to try another company. This can work on both ends: Your current provider might offer you an incentive to stay, and another provider might give you a special bonus to join. Either way, the winner should be you.

6. Try a B-list carrier

Years ago, no self-respecting middle-class person would have been caught dead with a Cricket phone. But times have changed. Prepaid and contract-free providers often get great reception and many people like their flexible service. You can avoid credit checks and hefty fees, and you can switch off the service whenever you want. Even big companies like Verizon and AT&T have started their own lines of prepaid service.

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