10 Simple Ways to Cut Costs on Data Usage

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Never Exceed Your Smartphone Data Cap Again

By Ari Cetron

The smartphone has become one of those how-did-we-survive-before-we-had-it types of inventions. As of 2013, about two-thirds of Americans own the devices, which let you send text messages, check your email, check Facebook, get a stock quote, read the newspaper, play games, take pictures, send those pictures to friends, look up the name of the guy from that movie whose name you can't remember right now. Apparently, you can even use them to make a phone call.

But so many of those activities use data. Pretty much everyone who has one of these phones is familiar with the three parts of the contract: making calls, sending texts and data usage. Of these, it's the third that can easily run up your bill. Now, there are a lucky few who got an iPhone 1 with an unlimited data plan that's been grandfathered in.

The rest of us have our lives measured in megabytes. At the end of the month, we need to ponder whether posting this one thing on Facebook is worth going over the data cap -- and seeing a huge jump in our bills. The best way to avoid that modern-day conundrum is to keep on top of your data over the course of the month. Here are 10 ways to help you keep it under control.

1. Figure out how much data you need. The best way to avoid going over your cap is to have your cap in the right place. If you find yourself hitting or exceeding the cap regularly, it's probably cheaper to get a higher cap than to pay the overage fees. AT&T has a calculator that can help you figure out how much data you might use in a month. The questions are fairly generic, so it should work if you use another carrier, too.

2. Use Wi-Fi early and often. If you are on a Wi-Fi network, the information goes to a router and then off into the Internet, instead of going through a phone company's antennas. This means that data you use via Wi-Fi doesn't count toward your total for the month. Many people have routers set up in their home. If not, they can be fairly cheap and easy to set up nowadays. And if buying the router helps you stay under your data cap, it should be a good investment over time. If you're not home, use someone else's Wi-Fi wherever possible. Many businesses offer free Wi-Fi to customers. And it is considered socially acceptable to ask for a friend's Wi-Fi password when you're at their house.

3. Watch the photos. In the scheme of data usage, photos are not the worst. But if you're a heavy Instagram user, or you really, really like to tweet out a picture of your dinner, that can easily change. You can take pictures all day long without impacting your data plan, it's only when you send them out that they start to matter, so be judicious about which ones you share.

4. Careful with the music. People just don't listen to the radio, or their playlist, like they used to, but streaming music can eat up data. Apps can stream at a very high bit rate, sometimes up to 320 Kbps, which means you're using 2.4 MB per minute. Check your preferences, and go for the lower bit rate. Or just listen to all those songs you downloaded before you started listening to Pandora.

5. Careful with the video. Video is, of course, sound with moving pictures, so it stands to reason that it uses more than either photos or audio. Streaming a video can use 50 MB per minute, a number that can get you to your data cap pretty quickly. Instead, try downloading the video to your phone when you're on a Wi-Fi network and playing it back later. Yes, everyone wants to see the dancing cat video right now, but if you wait 10 minutes until you're on Wi-Fi, it will end up saving your wallet a bundle.

Uploading videos also can be a data-heavy enterprise. It's tempting to put up the video of the kid's graduation right there while you're watching it, but does it need to be done in real time? Wait until you're back home and can do it the old-fashioned way -- on a Wi-Fi network, or from your desktop after you sync.

6. Games can be costly. Things like "Words with Friends" or "Angry Birds" -- does anyone still play "Angry Birds"? -- aren't too bad. But the action-packed shooters or kinetic driving games eat data. Everyone likes those time-wasters now and then, but be careful with them.

7. Stop the video chats. These are basically video and use data the same way. So Skype or FaceTime, or whatever app you use is using lots and lots of data. You are actually both sending and receiving video; it's a double-whammy that you should try to avoid.

8. Turn off auto-updates and notifications. This is sort of a stealth data hog. Your phone will constantly be checking in with apps you use frequently to see if there's an update. Email, Facebook, games you might play, the weather. If you allow push notifications, it means your phone is constantly looking for notifications to push at you. Each time it looks, it uses data. A small amount, generally, but it adds up. Go to your settings and turn off these pushes. You'll still be able to check the app, but it will only use the data when you want it to, not when it wants to.

9. Buy the app. Tons of apps are free to use, as long as you put up with ads on the screen, but if you buy the app, no more ads. Those ads, besides being visually annoying, are using your data. If it's an app you use regularly, buying it will remove the visual blight of the ads, and save you on data costs.

10. Get a data compression program. This will degrade the quality of your photos or videos, but it will save you lots of data. There are numerous options for both iPhone and Android, so shop around and find one that works for you.

Have other tips to share? Let us know in the comment section below or on our Facebook page.

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