By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/24/2009 7:31:59 AM ET 2009-09-24T11:31:59

Do you think you’re getting a good deal on your cell phone service? If you’re with one of the big four wireless carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T or Sprint) there’s a good chance you could pay less; in some cases, significantly less.

“People buy defensively,” explains consumer advocate Sam Simon, chairman of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center. “We have this fear that we’re going to go over our minutes and incur extra charges. So we buy these flat plans with tons of minutes, more than we’ll ever use.”

Another problem: Once they choose a plan, most people don’t bother to monitor their account to see whether it’s right for them.

“These plans are not simple and therefore once people go through the difficult and somewhat confusing process of choosing one, they don’t have the time or energy to make a change,” Simon tells me.

Billshrink.com, a free Web service, makes it quick and easy to see if you can save money – with your current wireless company or by changing to another one. The site analyzes millions of rate plans to find those that are best for you, based on where you live and how you use your phone.

“Eighty percent of the people who come to the site actually save money,” says BillShrink co-founder Schwark Satyavolu. “The average savings is between $200 and $300 during their two-year service contract.”

Happy customer
Kevin and Martina Mease are newlyweds living on a limited budget. The Seattle couple is always looking for ways to cut expenses. Kevin went on the site and “literally in 30 seconds” found a different plan with their carrier (AT&T) that lowered their cell bill $30 a month.

“That’s huge,” he says. “Especially when we’re trying to pile up some savings in case anything happens to my job.”

The new plan is cheaper because it has fewer minutes – more in line with what they use each month. Reducing the wasted airtime will save them $720 over the next two years.

How it works
Tell BillShrink how many phones you have, how many airtime minutes you use and how much texting you do each month. Do you have Web access or a data plan? If you have electronic billing, you can import all that information. Either way, in just seconds you can see where you stand.

The site shows you various service plans – from your own carrier or the competition – that cost less. The savings listed for switching to another company factors in any termination or activation charges.

By having various people test drive the site, I found that a competitor’s plan can often be so much better it’s worth paying the termination fee and switching. And remember, you get to keep your cell phone number when you change wireless services.

BillShrink promises to provide unbiased information even though it works on a commission basis. It makes money whenever a user clicks through to one of the recommended wireless plans.

The site makes it a snap to find the best deals from Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T or Sprint. But if you want the absolute lowest price, you’ll need to check into the numerous prepaid services. BillShrink does not include Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, TracFone, Net10 and Straight Talk in its analysis.

“Prepaid has really taken off this last year and actually started a bit of a price war,” says Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports.

For its September issue, the magazine looked at 152 nationwide wireless plans. The editors compared prepaid and contract plans and found that prepaid plans are generally cheaper.

“You should certainly consider them,” Blyskal says. “They are no longer only for the credit-challenged.”

Other ways to save
One of the quickest ways to bust your budget is to go over the bucket of minutes or text messages you pay for each month. If you have a tendency to do that get a different plan or one with unlimited calls and text messages.

The other option is to check your usage as you get near the end of the month. You can do that online or from your phone (for instance, with Verizon it is #min).

If you see you’re getting close to going over, stop using the phone – that’s right, turn off the phone for a few days – or contact the cell company and increase the minutes in your plan for that month.

“There’s no charge to switch plans and there is no impact on your contract anymore,” explains Sam Simon of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center. “It used to be that if you changed the plan they would extend your contract for another two years. That’s not the case anymore.”

Believe it or not, some people (me) don’t text. If you don’t, have the service blocked. That will prevent costly charges for junk texts.

Remember, your cell phone company won’t let you know if there’s a new or better service plan that could save you money. That’s up to you. A simple way to do this is to sign up for BillShrink’s e-mail alerts.

More information

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