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How to get a good deal on a cell phone

Home calling area: This area is defined by your service plan. If you make or receive calls outside your home calling area, you may have to pay long-distance or roaming charges. Home calling areas vary by calling plan and service provider. If you're being zapped with a bunch of roaming charges, consider a plan with a larger home calling area.

For more tips on deciphering your cell phone bill, check out this consumer brochure from the FCC.

Now that you've taken a good, hard look at your cell phone bills and contract, is your calling plan up to snuff? Are you paying absurd charges every month? Why not ask for a better deal?

You may be able to switch to another calling plan within the same company or make changes to your plan without penalty during the length of your contract. Be sure to ask.

Comparison shop
Do plenty of homework before you start negotiating. Take a close look at several other plans offered by your service provider. Is another plan better suited to your calling needs?

Be sure to check out calling plans from other service providers as well. Having information handy on a calling plan from another service provider may prompt your company to sweeten your service deal.

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"The best way to negotiate is not to demand a cheaper plan but to go in with information," Rhode says. "Cell phone companies have all kinds of different promotional plans that they never tell people about."

Checking out special offers and calling plans from other service providers in your area may take some time. With half a dozen service providers in your area all offering a range of calling plans, there's a lot of information to sift through.

"You really have to dissect," Blecher says.

Not sure what companies provide cell phone service in your area? Flip open your phone book and find out. Next hop online, visit the company Web sites and find out what types of calling plans are available in your area.

A list of cellular service comparison sites is available on

Knowing precisely what you're looking for in a calling plan will help speed along your search.

"Good data leads to good solutions," Rhode says.

For more tips on comparing cell phone plans, check out this consumer brochure by the FCC.

The more information you have when you contact a cell phone company, the better your chance of landing a good deal.

If you're unhappy with the quality of your calls or service, it may be time for a new provider.

Ask friends and family
Not sure what service provider to choose? Ask family, friends, co-workers and neighbors about their cell phone service. Do they have service troubles? Do all their calls come in crystal-clear all the time? How big is their home calling area? Do they get zapped with roaming charges?

When it comes to choosing a service provider, word of mouth in your local area rules.

Once you've settled on a service provider and a calling plan, it's time to pick out a phone.

And again, the best deals go to people who ask for them. Be sure to ask the manufacturer and service provider about rebates on the phone you want. Manufacturer rebates change weekly.

"There are always rebates," Blecher says. "Ask the carrier first because you're very much tied to your service provider."

Unless you're madly in love with your service provider, it's a good idea to steer clear of super-cool and super-pricey phones. The reason? If you decide to switch service providers, you'll have to ditch the phone.

Once you decide on a phone, calling plan and service provider, you're ready to make a deal.

Before signing on the dotted line, ask about taking your phone out for a test drive. Many companies will allow you to try out the phone for a couple of days or a couple of weeks before holding you to the terms of the contract.

Make the most of your testing time. Try out your phone at your home, at your office, at your friend's apartment. How's the service? Will you have to pay roaming charges to make a call from your office? It's best to find out before your contract kicks in.

"Really work that phone," Blecher says. "They need to find out if the service works for them because service varies from area to area."

If you decide the phone is not for you, be sure to return it on time.

"When you sign on the dotted line, ask them how many days you have to try it out," Blecher says. "Ask for the date. Do yourself one better. Set the alarm on the phone to go off on that day."

Here's one last tip -- avoid signing a cell phone contract that lasts more than a year. Let's say you move or change jobs or start or end a relationship. Any of those things could have a big impact on your calling patterns and needs.

"There are too many variables involved to get a multiyear contract," Blecher says. "It's a phone, not a house. The bottom line is your life changes."

And your cell phone plan should change right along with it.

-- Updated: May 12, 2004


Read more stories by Lucy  Lazarony
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See Also
Cell phone plan comparison worksheet
Just ask! The discount secret
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Financial advice glossary
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