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Family & Parenting

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Shopping for the right family phone and data plan

The cost of phone and data plans can quickly add up, especially for heads of household who finance such plans for their entire families. Though cell phone minutes were once the primary concern of cellular phone users, today's increasingly advanced smartphones have led many families to use their mobile devices for much more than just making calls.

That increased reliance is one reason the cost of phone and data plans has risen since the salad days of cell phones. Families looking to trim those costs can take inventory of their phone and data plans to make sure they are getting the most bang for their buck.

• Establish a budget. To get started, it's best to establish a budget. Families should decide how much they are comfortable paying for mobile devices and then work from that number. Without a budget, it is possible to spend more than desired, especially when faced with all of the features available in today's plans. Research the average prices of plans from a few different providers to get a grasp of what's available.

• Calculate the family's needs. To be able to compare prices accurately from different providers, first determine how many minutes, gigabytes of data and other features you and your family use in a given month. Look at the usage history on past cell phone bills to get a firm grasp of this usage, and add a reasonable amount to that total if you will be adding one or more children onto the plan. With an approximate usage number in mind, you can more easily find the plan that best suits your family.

• Consider pre-paid phones. Pre-paid plans are an option for some families. With such plans, users load a set amount of money on an account. Once that limit is exceeded, users no longer use their phones. This can be a good option for children who need to learn about the responsibility of cell phone ownership. Parents won't have to worry about incurring extra charges or receiving high bills for exceeding data or minutes. Pre-paid plans can give parents more control over phone usage without getting locked into a contract.

• Bundle plans. Enrolling in a family plan, which offers a number of lines and shared data or combining a mobile plan with other services offered by a cellular provider can save families money. For example, if your cable television and Internet provider also offers mobile phone services, signing up for one of their mobile plans might just save you money under a bundled package. Speak with a sales representative to see which plans will yield the most savings. Don't be afraid to mention what you've found at other providers. Some companies are willing to price match or offer additional discounts to earn your business.

• Learn the lingo. By learning the vocabulary of the mobile phone market, you will have more negotiating power. As with any technology, the terminology can be confusing. Terms such as data, rollover, talk and text, mobile share, and cloud storage may seem like a foreign language to the novice user. But it's relatively easy to get a crash course in cell phone lingo.

• Weight the pros and cons of contracts. Some phone plans require users to sign contracts for a set length of time, while others do not require contracts. In many instances, if you sign up for a one- or two-year contract, the service provider will offset the costs of your mobile phone or provide one for free. Without a contract, it may be the customer's responsibly to purchase a phone outright. You must decide what works best for your family.

• Look beyond the major providers. New providers continually enter the mobile phone arena, providing even more options to savvy consumers. While AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have long dominated the market and still may offer you the best value depending on your needs, keep in mind there are a variety of other providers and plans. What's more, retail stores may have agreements with certain mobile phone providers to offer you even more perks. Consumer Reports routinely ranks cell phone coverage and service and may be able to guide you in your next plan purchase.

Thanks to greater plan flexibility, more competition, and educated consumers, there has never been a better time to look at mobile phone plans for families.