As more and more consumers replace their landline phone with mobile options, cell phones are no longer seen as an extravagant extra. While it may seem that shopping for a phone and accompanying plan is fairly straightforward, the number of options for phones, plans and protections are actually rather abundant. Consider these six ways you can customize your service to meet your needs - and save a little cash in the process. (The technological contributions of Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla have paved the way for the modern cell phone industry. For further reading, see Cell Phone Evolution.)

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  1. Phone Functionality
    Most phones being offered by cell phone providers do more than just call; voice-activated dialing, internet browsing, text messaging, photos, video and music are all par for the course, giving consumers a dizzying array of options for their next model. But will you actually need all of these features? And how much can you save by skipping many of them? Do a simple "needs analysis" of just what you need in a phone, then list a few "nice to haves." If you can find a phone that matches up, you can save a bundle over more equipped models.

  2. Service Plans
    Your number one savings opportunity is in the actual service plan. Don't ever buy a more inclusive plan than you need, and avoid the temptation to go with unlimited service plans that can cause overkill on the final bill. Remember that the sales person's job is to get you into the door with a low-priced plan and then to upsell you based on a newly acquired perceived need. While sales reps do usually receive commission on service plan add-ons, one or two may be all you need to get away with adding to that lower-priced plan.

  3. Competition
    As with any products or service, do your research and never buy from your first salesperson you encounter. Get several quotes and work them against the most flexible provider that suits your needs. While some sales associates may tell you that they don't have the ability to meet a competitor's price offer, members of management or customer retention departments usually do have this authority. Ask for a manager if you experience initial resistance.

  4. Contracts
    Many cell phone customers don't realize that the lengths of cell phone service contracts are negotiable. While it may take some strong negotiating on your part (one that is most effective with an employee that has the kind of authority to make it happen), a three-year contract can be talked down to a two-year, for example. If possible, try to get a shorter contract while getting the phone at a discounted price. Sometimes a cell phone will cost $50 more if the contract is reduced by one year - depending on your preferences this may be a good route to take. (Be sure your budget can handle a cell phone bill. Read 6 Months To A Better Budget.)

  5. Coverage
    Every cell phone service provider differentiates coverage, and as a result, a great company in one part of the country (or even the same city) can be lousy in the next. Ask around, borrow a friend's phone, and try it out in the places you know you will need it. Many companies will offer the ability to "try before you buy" with a 30-day no obligation service, but for most states, there is a simple way out of any contract within a short period of time (usually two to three days.) You can also get to know the provider through a trusted referral, as good service is reflected best through customer loyalty.

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  6. Credit
    Your credit score will be the ultimate factor in determining the value of the cell phone plans available to you. If you've done well to maintain your credit, it's possible to walk into to any provider, ask for the price, phone and contract length of your choosing, and walk out with your phone activated and no cash out of pocket. Also, a solid relationship with your current provider in which you regularly paid you bills on time can prove beneficial if you want to remain with the same carrier but are looking into buying a new phone with a new plan. (Find out how to improve your credit in 5 Keys To Unlocking A Better Credit Score.)

The Bottom Line
The most important factor in cell phone savings is knowledge. Take the time to educate yourself about the six savings categories and never rush into the first plan that you see. By getting an accurate picture of what your cell phone plan will look like each month (including taxes, fees, and prorated services charges), it's possible to give cell phones their place in the well-balanced budget.

For the latest financial news, see Water Cooler Finance: Poverty Rates Increase - And So Do Millionaires.

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