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Outrageous Overages: How to Avoid Cell Phone “Bill Shock”

Mouth agape, pit-in-your-stomach: You’ve just opened your cell phone bill and had “bill shock!” Unexpected  charges can really run that bill up if you exceed plan limits for voice, data, texting and dreaded roaming charges.

A study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that one in six Americans with cell phone plans have had bill shock. Of those, 20 percent had overage charges of $100 or more. Yikes! Here are five ways you can combat cell phone bill shock:

  1. Track Your Usage: Weekly or bi-weekly, monitor your voice, data, and text usage on your cell phone. The method depends on your carrier and phone model. Some require an online account with your carrier. Other methods include checking the designated settings on your phone or using short codes you dial from your cell. Try setting a recurring reminder in your digital calendar.
  2. Download the Pageonce Application: If you have an iPhone or Blackberry, download the free Pageonce Cell Phone Tracker application on your phone. This handy application will you alert you when you’re within 20 percent of your minutes, text messages, and data limits. It will also send an alert when you’re within 5 percent of your usage limits and one more alert when you exceed limits. Click here to get the free Pageonce application.
  3. Negotiate Overages with Your Carrier: If you receive an unexpected bill with overage charges, call your carrier’s customer service department and try to negotiate an exception or discount. It never hurts to ask (politely)!
  4. Switch to a Pre-Paid Plan: If you have a hard time monitoring your usage levels or find your self frequently hitting or exceeding your plan limits, you may want to consider switching to a pre-paid cell phone plan. Be sure to check out Straight Talk, a service provided by TracFone Wireless Inc., the largest no-contract cell phone provider in the U.S. Straight Talk offers a pre-paid, no-contract “unlimited plan” for $45 a month to receive unlimited, nationwide anytime talk, text and data with calls to 411 at no additional charge.
  5. Upgrade Your Plan: If despite diligent monitoring you are still getting right up to, or exceeding, your usage limits, it may be prudent to upgrade your plan. Check out BillShrink, a free, independent service that analyzes your cell phone bill and sorts through 10 million options from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon to find the best cell phone plan. While BillShrink can be a useful tool, keep in mind that the service only analyzes a small number of cell phone carriers and does not include pre-paid plans.

The Future of Overage Fees: The FCC’s “Bill Shock” Agreement

Wireless carriers receive almost 50 percent of their revenue from overage fees. However, in light of the new “bill shock” agreement between wireless carriers and the FCC, that will change. Under this agreement, participating carriers (representing more than 97 percent of the nation’s wireless carriers) have agreed to provide customers with advance alerts when they approach their plan limits.

The carriers’ agreement with the FCC covers voice, data, and text overages as well as international roaming fees. Participating carriers have until October 17, 2012 to implement an alert system for at least two of the four potential sources. By May 17, 2013, participating carriers must implement an alert system for all four potential sources. Some carriers have already started to implement these alerts.

The following chart, available on the FCC ‘s newly launched “bill shock” website, shows carriers’ status:


Some major carriers including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless have already implemented limited overage alerts to customers. If you use these carriers, click on the appropriate link (above), to see how the alert system works. Follow other carriers’ progress at the FCC’s “bill shock” website. Ask your current cell phone carrier and potential carriers whether they are participating.

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10 thoughts on “Outrageous Overages: How to Avoid Cell Phone “Bill Shock””

  1. Lin S says:

    check out Virgin Mobile!  That’s what I have and love it!  I get 300 voice minutes (I’ve never gone over that), unlimited text and data all for $25+tax.  Be advised though, the current rate for this same plan is now $35.  I’m “grandfathered” into the old plan since I got my phone in early 2011.  There are other voice minutes plans, but I don’t know what they are as I don’t even need the 300 I get.  And no it doesn’t roll over.  Only once have I come close to that 300, 290.  All the other times it’s usually way under 200 for me.  I don’t use the voice nearly as much as I use the text.  I am hard of hearing and most of my contacts are deaf.  So, the unlimited text is great for me!  Best of all, you’re not sucked into those “2 year plans”.  ;-)

    Again, as with a lot of things these days …. do your research.  I spent the better part of 2-3 months going over various contract and non-contract plans.  When I first came across VM, I liked it and as I went along, I just kept coming back to it as the best one for me.  :-) 

  2. I have a TracFone. I’ve had it for abt. 3yrs and I’m perfectly happy with it. I really don’t use it that much but I have it if I need it. It does come in handy if I see something in a store that I think my boyfriend might be interested in I can call him and ask if I should buy it for him. The TracFone I have is a Double Minutes phone. I usually buy a 1 yr. card (400mins X 2 = 800mins) plus I go online and find a 200min bonus code. So I end up with 1000mins. plus a yr. of service for $99.99 + 7%NJ tax. I realize that 1000mins. doesn’t sound like much to most people but it works for me.

  3. Monica says:

    My contract was up in May.  I switch ed to a company called Consumer Cellular.  They have plans to fit everyones needs.  I dumbed down my phone because I found I wasn’t using my “smart phone” for all the money I was paying.  I just got a basic phone that I could text and talk on.  My bill went from $90 per month down to $25.  Customer service people are awesome and very helpful.  There is no contract plan.  You can upgrade or downgrade if needed, whenever you want.  I had 300 minutes and 1000 texts.  Once I got my first bill, I realized I would never use 1000 texts and switched to 500 texts.  That cost went from $10 down to $5.  I encourage people to check it out.  I will never go back to Sprint.   If I decide in the future I want to upgrade again, I can do so when I want. http://www.consumercellular.com/

  4. Dianne Buquet says:

    Not so sure I want to give this ‘Pageonce’ the information they want on my mobile phone company. They want the login I use for my account. I don’t know anything about who they are. Does anyone have any info on them? I might be able to just check my own without giving away this information.

  5. Suzth23 says:

    Avoid Verizon regardless of how attractive it appears. You are locked into your plan for two years. Since I signed the contract, I have had to quit my job due to medical bills. Verizon is unwilling to help me reduce my bill.

    • A. S. says:

      They all do that. At least with Verizon, it usually is just payment on how much of the contract you cancelled. You should see the penalty my lousy home phone company has if you cut off service during a promotional phase.  Last time I looked, it was $500 or so.  Wish I could go elsewhere, but they’re the only game in town for land lines or internet :(  

  6. Kamumford76 says:

    We had Comcast for years, but prices keep going up.  So I shopped around and found AT&T had 19.95 a month for internet for 1 year. I switched.

    • Jennifer Fitzgerald says:

      I wish we have AT&T in our area. We had Comcast for 6 months, then when that was up, we had to drop our cable to save money. They wanted to charge us for Internet, what we were paying for cable and internet alone. Needless to say, I went with it for now, but I plan on switching to something else.

  7. Josmaryflores says:

    any tips on how to save for internet my company keeps raising the prices each year. Im tired of it

    • Kmtdaisy says:

       I just called them this week. I call every year when our plan is up. I told them the bill was too high and I wanted to see what I could do to save money. I ended up going with a 2 yr. contract but it the long run it will be cheaper. Doesn’t hurt to call and ask them what they can do for you.