Cell phones are expensive.

Not only are the actual devices costly — the Google Pixel and iPhoneX will set you back $999 — but the data plans they come with are pricey too. The more data and extras (like unlimited texting, talk, and roaming internationally) you have, the pricier your plan.

Consumers opting for plans they can’t afford

A study from Credit Sesame looked at 5,000 of its members, and showed that one of the most common bills to go into collections are cell phone bills, with the average cellular account in collections is $887.

What does this mean? It means that perhaps people are having a hard time paying their cell phone bills and they’re signing up for plans they simply can’t afford. While there are many reasons why a bill can go into collections, having a plan that’s too expensive is never good for your budget and can be a slippery slope.

You don’t want to fall into the trap of having a plan that you can’t afford and then have it go into collections, especially when many cell phone companies offer cheaper plans and better packages.

Big cell phone companies have cheaper, spin-off carriers

If you’re trying to find ways to save money on bills this year, your cell phone bill is a smart place to start, since there are plenty of cheaper options. Gone are the days of limited plans from the big four cell phone carriers — AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile.

With so many options, it’s just a matter of finding the plan that works for your lifestyle and budget.

The big four cell phone providers mentioned above have lesser-known spin-off bargain cell phone plans, known as MVNOs (which stands for mobile virtual network operators) that basically run on the big four networks. For example, low-cost carrier Cricket is run by AT&T, Sprint owns Boost and Virgin, while T-Mobile offers MetroPCS and GoSmart.

You’ve probably never heard of many of these plans, but they’re worth checking out if you’re looking for cheap options. If you don’t need a family plan and are just wanting an individual plan, you can find even cheaper deals.

While cell phone plans can be complicated and even confusing, there are strategies to find the best plan — it will take a bit of time and research based on your cell phone habits, budget and carrier options.

Many of these carriers offer plans that are contract-free, with the flexibility to only pick and choose what you need in order to bring your total bill down each month.

Best plan vs bare bones

When searching for cheaper plans, first ask yourself if you want a cheaper plan while still being able to keep a reasonable amount of data, or is price the most important factor in finding the best plan.

If you only care about price, you’ll most likely want to choose a pay-as-you-go plan that many carriers offer, and will need to scale back on the amount of data you’re using on your phone. You can expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $40 a month for cheaper, pay-as-you-go individual plans.

If you are someone who doesn’t use their phone much, or if you’re looking for a plan for someone else who doesn’t necessarily need a lot of data, like your elderly parent, this type of plan is best for you.

What should you consider before changing plans?

Here’s a quick list of what to think about before you switch over to a cheap plan from pay-as-you-go carriers:

  • Are you in a contract with your current plan? If so, you’ll need to wait until your contract ends, unless you want to pay an early cancellation fee.
  • Are you prepared to use less data on your phone?
  • Do you own your phone or are you leasing it? If you’re leasing, you should consider paying off the balance so you have your own phone when signing up for a new carrier, otherwise it’ll be an added cost.
  • If you own your phone, is it compatible with the low-cost carrier? If you’re not sure, call and ask first.

Cheaper plans mean less data, so you’ll need to learn how to scale back on your browsing habits and make some adjustments on your phone’s settings as well. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

These plans are probably not best for those who are in the habit of using their cell phones heavily, since cutting back requires some training and practice. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up paying a lot more since you’ll need to keep adding data each time you run out.

Plans that cost $10 a month

It may come as a surprise for you, but you can find plans that cost $10 or less. Don’t expect a whole lot, though.

The following cell phone companies provide some of the most inexpensive monthly options that are currently out there. Most plans come with data, but some offer just talk and text.

1. Scratch Wireless: $69 for the year

The cheapest plan is from a company called Scratch Wireless, which sells a year’s worth of service for only $69. That comes out to $5.75 a month!

Because the price is so cheap, there’s a catch. The service only works on their own phone, which is an $89 Android phone called the Coolpad Arise. The $69 yearly cost only pays for calling over WiFi and cellular texting.

They give you the option of using Sprint’s network to make calls or use data and you can get 100 minutes for $7.99 more, or $14.99 a month for unlimited calls.

2. Red Pocket: $10 a month

If you want a plan that has options outside of just talking, check out Red Pocket’s $10 Essentials Plan that works with any of the four major U.S. networks and offers 500 minutes, 500 texts and 500 MB of LTE data each month.

For five bucks more you can get 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts and 1GB of LTE data. The plan above that is the best deal, offering unlimited minutes, text and 500 MB of LTE data, as long as you sign up for auto-refill that has a one-time fee of $19.

3. FreedomPop: free, but it’s $20 for activation

FreedomPop’s basic plan is 100% free, meaning, you don’t pay anything for talk, text and data, but the trade-off is that it’s pretty limited, with 200 minutes, 500 texts, 500 MB data each month.

They charge $20 to activate your phone and another $10 to transfer your phone number to the carrier.

FreedomPop is compatible with most unlocked AT&T or T-Mobile phones. You also have the option to purchase some phones (mostly older models) directly from them, if you don’t have your own phone.

Keep in mind you have to buy the phone and pay in full, there are no monthly installments to pay for your phone, like larger phone carriers offer.

Before you sign up, their site asks for your ZIP code and email address to check availability in your area. It also allows you to activate your phone online if you already own a device, by entering your MEID or ICCID number and an email address.

This plan is great if you’re very disciplined about using your phone when you’re tethered to WiFi, since it supports WiFi Calling, a feature that lets you make calls and send texts when you’re connected to WiFi.

4. Republic Wireless: $15

Republic Wireless gives you the option to only pay for what you use.  The company is known for its awesome customer service and a popular deal is their $20 plan, which includes unlimited talk, text and 1 GB of data on Sprint or T-Mobile networks.

Their My Choice Plan offers unlimited talk and text for $15 and high speed LTE cell data for $5 per GB.  When you are reaching your limit for cell data usage, you can always add 1GB at a time for $5 through the app, which is pretty convenient.

This plan is great for people who may need vary degrees of data, from month to month, because you can adjust how much data you need from the app.

When you get to the site, you can check to see if Republic Wireless is covered in your area, and they even offer a handy tool that gives you an estimate of how much you’d pay, given the amount of data you want to purchase.

5. MintSIM: Starts at $15 a month

MintSIM works slightly different than the other plans because you are allowed to prepay for up to three months in advance — they call it buying “wireless in bulk.”

Their current deal gives you unlimited talk and text with 2GB of 4G LTE data for $15, as long as you purchase three months in advance.

You have the option of customizing your plan in advance for 3 to 12 months.

Plans that Cost ~ $20+ a Month

6. Project Fi: $20 a month

Project Fi is operated by Google that uses the following big carriers: Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Three.

This plan costs $20 for unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, WiFi tethering to use your phone as a hotspot and more.

This plan is ideal for someone who needs to text international numbers or travels frequently, since Project Fi offers cellular coverage in 135 countries.

You can add up to 5 more people to your plan for $15 per month, per person. Data costs $10 per GB until Bill Protection kicks in. Bill Protection is a feature that helps customers save money by allowing customers to pay for only the data they use.

7. Ting: $23 a month

Ting is another inexpensive option and according to their site, the average Ting bill is just $23 per phone, per month. Since you only pay for what you use, Ting rolls over unused minutes to your next month.

Because you only pay for what you use each month, the pricing is different each month. They charge $6 per device. They also have a helpful tool to estimate how much it would cost if you used Ting.

You can use your existing phone or buy a phone from them. They offer nationwide coverage and don’t have contracts either.

8. Consumer Cellular: $25 a month

Consumer Cellular, which targets senior citizens, runs on AT&T’s network and has a plan that offers 250 minutes and 250MB for about a month. The plan makes it easy for seniors to use their phones and gives a 5 percent discount for AARP members.

According to their site, the average customer pays around $25 a month. Their straightforward plan allows you to share your minutes, text and data by adding a line for $15 per month. You can change your plan at any time, since there are no additional fees for switching.

9. Total Wireless: $25 a month

Total Wireless has a no-worry 30-day plan that costs $25 a month and has unlimited talk and text for one line. You can add 5GB of 4G LTE data for $10.

Or you can sign up for the next plan up, which is $35 a month and has unlimited talk and text and 5GB of data.

Total Wireless uses Verizon’s network, so the coverage is solid. You can also save 5 percent of your bill if you sign up for autopay.

They also have 30-day family plans with shared data that start at $60 for two lines and unlimited talk, text and 15 GB of data.

10. h2O Wireless: $30 a month

h2O Wireless is a prepaid option that offers unlimited data, talk and text for $30 a month. This option gives you 4GB of 4G LTE.

For $40 a month, you get unlimited data, talk and text with 8GB of 4GB LTE data.

They’re offering a One Touch-990 Bundle deal that offers 4GB LTE unlimited data, unlimited talk and text nationwide, unlimited international talk and text to 50+ countries, and $10 of international talk credit. They’re throwing in an Android phone for free.

They also offer unlimited calling and texting to 50 international destinations.

11. Cricket: $30 a month

Cricket uses AT&T’s network and for $30 a month, you get unlimited talk, 2GB and 4G LTE data. For $40 a month, you can get 5GB of data.

If you don’t need any data, they offer a talk and text plan for $25 a month. You can buy a phone or bring your own.

Spending $40+ each month for your bill — consider unlimited plans

  • Sprint 2GB: $40 a month
  • Verizon’s Go Unlimited: $40 a month
  • Xfinity Mobile: $45 a month
  • ROK Mobile: $45 a month
  • Metro PCS: $50
  • Boost Mobile: $50
  • Virgin Mobile Plan: $50
  • Sprint Unlimited Freedom Plan: $60

If you’re willing to spend over $40 for each individual line, look into unlimited plans. Unlimited plans give you peace of mind to freely use your phone as you please. A short while back, cell phone companies removed many of their unlimited plans, but the good news is they’re making a come back, as many carriers have started offering them again.

Here are some of the cheapest unlimited plans:

12. Sprint 2GB Single Line: $40 a month

Sprint has a 2GB plan for $40 a month, which gives you unlimited talk and text, unlimited international text and mobile hotspot too.

This deal applies as long as you sign up for AutoPay and get a discount on your monthly bill.

13. Verizon’s Go Unlimited $40 a month

For $40 a month, per line, Verizon’s Go Unlimited gives you unlimited 4LTE data, unlimited talk and text, DVD-quality streaming and unlimited mobile hotspot.

Adding additional lines will cost $40 each. They also have a beyond unlimited plan for $50, which includes everything the $40 plan does, except it includes coverage in Mexico and Canada.

14. Xfinity Mobile: $45 a month

For those people signed up for Comcast, this deal is for you. Xfinity Mobile is offering current customers unlimited talk, text and data for $45 a month.

Xfinity Mobile has unlimited data for $45 a month on Verizon, which means you’ll have good coverage. The only caveat is that once you use up 20GB of data, your high speed will be reduced.

15. ROK Mobile: $45 a month

Using unlimited data for $45 a month on the Sprint network, ROK Mobile is comparable to Xfinity. Once you reach 20GB of data, you’ll experience a high speed reduction. 

16. MetroPCS: $50 a month

MetroPCS has a $50 plan that gives you unlimited 4G LTE data and WiFi calling. You can add an additional line for $20, and the plan is contract-free. Taxes and fees are included with the prices.

17. Boost Mobile: $50 a month

Similar to MetroPCS, Boost Mobile has a $50 unlimited plan that includes taxes and fees. If you bring your own phone, you can get a free month ($50 credit).

Also, look into their inexpensive family plans, if you need more than one line. For $100, Metro PCS has unlimited talk and text data for four people.

18. Virgin Mobile: $50 a month

Virgin Mobile has a contract-free Inner Circle plan for $50 a month for unlimited talk, text and data.

Keep in mind that in 2017 Virgin Mobile became an iPhone only carrier. If you bring your own iPhone or purchase one. If you purchase an iPhone directly from Virgin Mobile, you can take advantage of their 6-month, $1 a month special for unlimited text, talk and data!

There’s no activation fee and to unlock the $50 a month price, you need to sign up for autopay.

19. Sprint Unlimited Freedom Plan: $60

In addition to Sprint’s 2GB plan, they also have a Freedom Plan for $60, which includes unlimited talk, text and data, as well as 10BG of hotspot data per line.

You can add a second line for $40 a month, and $30 for each additional line, after that.

20. T-Mobile: $60 and up for seniors

For those who are 55 and up, T-Mobile has a $60 unlimited plan for 2 lines. The plan includes unlimited talk, text and LTE data and you have to sign up for autopay in order to qualify for this price.

So, how much data do you need each month?

You’re on the train and scrolling through Facebook, you’re waiting in line at Starbucks and watching a YouTube video someone sent you, you check emails obsessively – these are all things that use up a lot of data from your phone. Data is one of the main reasons cell phone plans can be so pricey.

The average cell phone user uses 3GB each month, according to a market research firm, NPD Group. These are the smartphone users who are streaming videos, music, posting to Instagram, and using their favorite apps constantly.

Not everyone falls into this group, through. NPD Group said 30 percent of smartphone users currently use about 500MB.

Find out how much data you’re using

If you’re unsure how much data you’re using, go to your phone’s settings and tap the network and Internet data usage to see what the total is.

When in doubt, just call up your cell phone carrier and ask, so you have an idea of how much data you and your family are using. See if you can scale back your data usage by 25 percent or more, and then find a plan that fits accordingly.

Verizon Wireless has a useful tool that allows you to estimate how much data you’re using each month.

Tips on how scale back on using cellular data

If you don’t go with one of the unlimited plans, you’ll most likely need to scale back on your data usage. Just imagine you’re traveling abroad and can’t access data unless you’re connected to WiFi.

Get into the habit of doing the following.

  1. Connect to WiFi every chance you get.
  2. Limit browsing time to when you’re on WiFi.
  3. For apps that constantly refresh using data (i.e. emails), change your settings on your phone so it only refreshes when you’re on WiFi, or set it so it refreshes less frequently.
  4. For less important apps, set it so that you can only access them when you’re on WiFi.

Examples of phone activities that should be done when you’re on WiFi:

  • Browsing and Googling
  • Watching video clips
  • Streaming video, music or podcasts
  • Sending/receiving emails
  • Posting photos to Facebook, Instagram
  • Sending photos via text message or texting apps
  • Using Google maps

Streaming music or podcasts

Download your music playlist or your podcast subscriptions directly to your phone, rather than streaming them. However, if your phone doesn’t have a lot of gigs, you won’t be able to store a lot of songs or podcasts.

Apps like Spotify and Soundcloud let you download music in an offline mode (if you’re paying for the subscription), which means when you’re connected to WiFi, you can download your favorite playlists directly to your device.

Google Maps

If you need to use Google maps, all you need to do is put in the destination while you’re on WiFi, and it’ll navigate you all the way there (even after you’re not on WiFi anymore).

Keep in mind if you decide to take a detour or reroute, it won’t automatically sync to the final destination. Both Android and iPhones are capable of doing this.

Check the coverage

Having terrible reception in your own home is like death by 1,000 paper cuts, and you don’t want to turn into the “Can you hear me now?” guy.

Before switching plans, make sure the cell phone carrier has great coverage in your area. Many of the carriers allow you to easily check their site to see if your area is covered by asking you to type in your ZIP code.

There are plenty of options to pick and choose from

No matter what kind of plan you decide to choose, make sure it’s realistic to your habits and lifestyle. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can hang with a $10 plan, but end up going over the data, or adding more gigs which ultimately adds to the cost of your bill.

The good thing is, there are plenty of plans available, so if one doesn’t work out, you can always try out another one to see if it’s to your liking.

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