If you’re looking for a new cell phone plan that will save you money, the good news is there are more options than ever. The bad news is there’s no one best plan or network for everyone; you’ll have to sort through them and figure out which one is best for you. Follow the guidelines below to narrow your options and start saving. (For more, see Telephone Service: The Cheapest Ways to Get It.)

Consider an Alternative Carrier for Your Cell Phone Plan

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) lease excess cell phone network capacity from the biggest four carriers – AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, also called mobile network operators (MNOs) – at wholesale prices and resell it under their own names at their own prices. MVNOs can charge less than MNOs because they have no infrastructure costs, similar to how online-only banks can charge less because they have no storefront locations. 

No matter what your budget, you can find a suitable plan from one of these smaller carriers. Scratch Wireless, TracFone and Red Pocket Wireless, for example, all have plans that will cost you $10 a month or less if you’re willing to use little to no data and limit your texting and talking. For $19 a month, those who talk on their phones for fewer than 200 minutes a month will appreciate Twigby’s unlimited texts and 1GB of data plan. Talkers can use Republic Wireless, which sells a $20 plan with unlimited talk and text plus 1GB of data. Consult PCMag’s The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of for many more options.

The unique drawbacks of using an MVNO are that you may not have access to nationwide roaming, using your phone as a hot spot or the fastest download speeds. To get the best service make sure the MVNO’s underlying network (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile) is fast and reliable in your area. OpenSignal is a good place to get this information. Some MVNOs, such as Red Pocket and TracFone, operate on more than one network.

Worried about whether you’ll be a satisfied customer? Don’t be. In its 2017 cell phone survey Consumer Reports found that smaller providers earned high scores for their low prices and customer support. 

Don’t Be Loyal to Your Carrier

According to Business Insider, the cell phone market is near saturation, and more than three-fourths of users have smartphones. What’s more, consumers are no longer tethered by contracts. That means providers are competing more heavily on price to steal customers from competitors. So once a year or whenever you buy a new phone, spend an hour seeing what plans are out there. Plans change so rapidly these days that even if your current one seems like a good value, you might find a better value with another carrier. If you don’t check, you’ll never know if you’re overpaying for the level of service you’re getting.

Consumer Reports in 2016 found that its survey respondents had been with their current cell service provider for an average of eight years. About 40% said they had no major reason to switch providers, but the smaller percentage of customers who switched often shaved $20 or more off their monthly bills. 

Match Your Plan to Your Usage

No one wants to get slapped with overage fees or have their data throttled after going on a late-night YouTube binge. And that fear sometimes causes us to buy more data than we need. But do you have any idea how much data you actually use?

To find out you’ll want to install a data monitoring app on your phone to tell you how much data you’ve used during your current billing cycle and which apps are using the most data. You can also consult your last few bills to see how much data you’re using.

Also, consider learning a few tips to lower your data usage. You can change app settings so that data hoggers only use WiFi, not cellular data. Video services such as YouTube and Netflix can burn through cellular data. Instead, download music, podcasts, videos and audiobooks while you’re on a WiFi network so you can enjoy them without using data. You might learn that you really don’t need to be paying $80 a month for unlimited data. Verizon will give you 2GB with unlimited talk and text for $35/month. Republic Wireless offers the same for $30/month plus tax. 

Go Prepaid

If you want to get your service from one of the big four carriers, check out their prepaid plans to save money. Prepaid plans don’t require credit checks and don’t have data overage fees. With AT&T Wireless, you can get 1GB of data, unlimited talk and text within the United States and unlimited texting with 100 international countries for just $30 a month with autopay or $35 per month without. An extra $10 a month will get you 6GB of data if you need it.

10 More Money-Saving Strategies for Your Phone Plan

Here are a few more options that might save you money:

  • Sign up for automated monthly payments and paperless billing.
  • Look for a promotional plan designed to steal your business from a rival. Be prepared to switch plans when the promotional pricing ends.
  • Don’t pay for HD-quality video streaming.
  • Know your all-in cost before you sign up. Does that low monthly rate include all taxes and fees?
  • Don’t pay for hotspot service you don’t need, and don’t pay for more or faster hotspot data than you need.
  • Seek out senior discounts. As one example, T-Mobile has an unlimited plan that provides two lines for $60 a month to customers 55 and up. 
  • Don’t fold your device cost into your phone bill; it shields you from the sting of knowing exactly how much you’re paying for the latest iPhone or Galaxy. Instead of paying $70 up front plus $25 per month for the next two years, for a total of $670, pay cash up front for a less expensive older model, ideally an unlocked one, so you can easily switch from one carrier to another. (For more, see 2017’s Most Expensive Cell Phones.)
  • Don’t get sucked in by offers for free Netflix or HBO. Buy only the phone service you need; pay for your TV needs separately. (However, if the level of service you need happens to come with a freebie you’ll actually use, great.)
  • Skip the device plans. You could save $10 or $20 per month per device by foregoing a cellular data plan for your wearables, laptops and tablets. Could you rely solely on your phone for data service outside your home?
  • If you want to keep your carrier, try negotiating with the customer-retention department for a better deal. You’ll need to do your research to see what competing carriers are offering. Hate haggling? Get a bill negotiation service to do it for you; one option is NerdWallet’s partnership with BillShark. You’ll pay them a portion of your savings.

The Bottom Line

With hundreds of cell phone plans from dozens of carriers, consumers have more options than ever to save money and get a great value. Using an MVNO, buying only as much data as you need, going prepaid and comparing plans every year or so are all good places to start.