Do you really need an unlimited data plan for your phone?

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Do you really need an unlimited data plan for your phone?
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One of the biggest decisions most people make when selecting a cell phone plan is how much data they want included in that plan.

People who use their phone primarily for talking and texting will generally opt for a cheaper plan that includes a minimal amount of data (say, 1-3 GB per month).

Those who use their phones for web surfing, social media, gaming and video streaming might opt for a more expensive unlimited data plan. That way, they never have to worry about going over their data limit and paying extra for that data.

If you fall more into the latter category, you might be paying a premium for an unlimited data plan.

But do you really need to be doing that?

Do you really need an unlimited data plan?

We posed this question to money expert Clark Howard.

“Most people don’t,” he said. “You have a huge percent of people out there who use less than a gig a month.”

In fact, the average cell phone owner uses about 6.1 GB of data each month, according to research from Strategy Analytics.

Those average users would be well served to consider more middle-of-the-road data plans, which are typically around 25% less expensive than even the cheapest unlimited data plans.

Of course, each phone user is different.

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How to check your data usage

To figure out how much data you’re using on your phone each month and how you’re using it, you need to know where to find that information.

1. Look at your cell phone bill to see your monthly data usage

Do you really need an unlimited cell phone plan?

First — whether you get electronic or paper statements — look at your previous three to six months of cell phone bills and come up with the average number of gigs you’ve used per month over those months. This should be a pretty accurate reflection of your habits and predictor of future usage.

2. Consult your phone to see which apps are using the most data

Then, look to your phone itself to see which apps and activities are using all of those precious gigs.

To see which apps are using the most data on an iPhone: Go to Settings > Cellular on your phone. Scroll down and you’ll see something that looks like this:

What you are looking at how much data the various apps on your phone are using.

To see which apps are using the most data on an Android phone: Go to Settings > Data Usage and scroll down to see the apps that are using data:

Do you really need an unlimited cell phone plan?

How to cut your data usage

Once you know which apps are using the most data, you can make some choices. Are there apps running in the background that you don’t really use anymore? Toggle them off or delete them entirely and watch your data usage drop.

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Another way to reduce data consumption is to use Wi-Fi whenever possible. Whether this is your network at home or one in a coffee shop you frequent, using your phone in Wi-Fi mode means you’re not burning through data.

You can find free Wi-Fi networks in your local area at Wifimap and Wi-Fi Space.

Clark Howard is not a big fan of using public Wi-Fi networks due to the security risks. But there are ways to protect yourself, including using a VPN (virtual private network). Some options to consider are:

Try eliminating the data-sucking apps you don’t really use (or cutting back on usage of the ones you do) and making sure you’re always connected to Wi-Fi when possible for a month or so and see what difference it makes.

It could take you from a heavy data user who truly does need an unlimited data plan to an average data user who can same money by opting for a cheaper limited plan.

How to find a new data plan that works for you

To recap, in order to figure out whether you truly need an unlimited data plan, you should:

  • Look back at three to six months of cell phone bills to get your average data usage per month
  • See if you can make changes in your data usage by ditching unused apps and making sure you’re connecting to Wi-Fi when possible
  • After doing that, monitor your data usage for a month or two

At that point, you should have a pretty good idea whether you still need an unlimited plan or not. It’s likely there are plenty of limited plans out there that will suit your needs and save you money.

Compare our current picks for the best cell phone plans for all types of data usage here.

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