"It's the biggest bill in the house, outside of the mortgage payment."
T.J. Pinales of Austin, Texas, holds his nose and writes a check to Verizon Wireless every month for about $325, astonished that telephone service now occupies the No. 2 slot in the family budget. But NBC News heard that lament again recently as readers responded to a story about a wireless trade industry report claiming average cellphone bills are going down.
“At one point, we were against cellphones, then we got them, and had conservative plans, and then the bill grows and grows,” said Pinales, a construction worker. Pinales has five phones for his family and pays for a WiFi hotspot, which he uses while on-site at large commercial projects. When he downloads a large architectural drawing, though, he worries about his bill going up.
In response to a Red Tape Chronicles invitation, nearly 1,400 readers wrote in to share details about their phone bills. They told of cutting back on other purchases to pay for smartphone service, struggling to pay bills and avoid service cutoffs and shopping around to save money only to find that all service providers ultimately charge similar prices.
"It's modern-day crack," said Dessa Jarmon, of Tacoma, Wash., who pays nearly $4,000 annually for cellphone service for her family – three smartphones, one flip phone. Jarmon was laid off from her bookkeeping job six months ago, but doesn’t see many options for lowering her $330-a-month bill that wouldn’t involve major early termination fees or loss of service. She already gets a 17 percent discount, thanks to her husband’s job. Does she feel like she’s getting good value for her money?
"Every time a call drops, I certainly don't," she said.
CTIA, the cell phone trade group, said in a report last month that the average cellphone bill is $47, though in a follow-up interview, the agency clarified that the figure represents an average per handset. In other words, a family of four with a bill of $188 would be considered average.
But reader e-mails seem to suggest that's a little low. Of the 1,400 readers who responded, 80 noted their bill was between $190 and $210. On average, that group had 3.1 phones, meaning the cost is about $65 per phone. People with bills near $250 paid $67 per phone.
The median bill -- representing the midpoint of all bills sent to us -- was $124.
It’s important to note that the survey was not scientific or statistically representative, and many of those wrote in were already angry about the size of their bills. Still, the high price of staying connected comes through loud and clear in the data.
The most common refrain among consumers who agreed to follow-up interviews was this: How did the bill climb so far, so fast?
“At the store, you get what seems like a good plan until you get your first bill, and then you say, ‘What the hell? This isn't what I signed up for,’" said Sarah Herring, 37, who lives outside Milwaukee. "Everything isn’t clear, and then suddenly you are spending money you don’t really have."
Herring’s $240 monthly bill for four phones was lower than many others with the same number of phones, but it is still a bitter pill to swallow. She moved to Wisconsin from Flagstaff, Ariz., earlier this year, so her husband, who recently completed 10 years of military service, could attend law school. The couple and their three kids live in a suburb, and he needs broadband wireless Internet access so he can study on the bus. "There's a very specific reason we have the phones we have," she said.
Two smartphones with data plans can't be had for much less than $200. Throw in a couple of "dumb" phones, even at discount prices, and the cost climbs to near $250 for the Herrings.
Like many consumers, she complained about the cell industry's move to charge more for data plans.
"As far as I'm concerned, it seems like a huge rip-off, but what do you do?" she said. The family never eats out, she said, and social life consists of a case of beer every few weeks. "There's a lot of stuff we don’t do because we have the bills we have."
Shannon Rodriguez, a school guidance counselor in Houston, Texas, was struggling last week to find $805 to get her phone service restored.
"There's just something else that won't get paid this month," said Rodriguez, whose husband also works at the school. The couple’s biggest problem: His family lives in Mexico, and while they pay extra for cheaper international calling and texting rates, those discounts are limited. During the past two months, calling home turned a $200 bill into a $400 bill. And unlike land lines, where service interruptions were heavily regulated and basic service disconnection could be delayed, wireless firms are unforgiving for unpaid bills.
"This is our family phone. We don't have a house phone," Rodriguez said. "In this day and age, not having a phone is like not having a leg."
Rodriguez said she understands that cellphone companies have to be strict in their collections, and said she takes responsibility for the bill, which will get paid -- somehow.
"My head is still spinning. Can I sell an organ?" she joked. "It's bad. We're fully aware of how it works, but it's very easy to slip up and when you realize it, it's too late. You know what? It's our fault. We'll just have to suck it up, but it definitely makes things extremely unpleasant."
Do you have a nagging feeling that you are spending too much on monthly bills, or getting ripped off? Tell me – you might get a Gotchanalysis and be a featured in a new series. Write to BobSullivan@feedback.msnbc.com to nominate yourself or a friend.
Another clear theme in the data: families are hit hard because they often have three, four, even five phones. And it’s getting harder and harder to beat back teenagers’ demands for smartphones. It’s even harder to stop them from gobbling up precious data allotments with video downloads. Rodriguez, Jarmon and Pinellas all gave smartphones to their kids, but share minutes with them and try to cap their usage.
That, said Jarmon, a former AirTouch cellular customer service agent, can be a losing battle.
"I had to raise our allotment once already. We did go over last month -- we were at 6 (gigabytes per month) but had to go to 8,” she said. “ When I looked at what was using the data, I was that my stepson was sending video texts. But what am I supposed to do, sit down every night and look at everybody's phone and look at their usage? I'm not going do that. I have other things to do."
Cellphone providers have always encouraged users to overpay by charging severe penalties for overuse – 25-cents-per- minute voice overage charges or 20-cent fees for excess texts, for example. That’s true with data plans, too. Verizon let consumers buy 2 extra gigabytes of downloads in advance for $10 monthly; those same two gigabytes would cost $30 after the fact. So it makes sense for consumers to overbuy, as a form of insurance.
Lina Fetter, of northwestern Pennsylvania, said she has tried to shop around and cut her bill, but she has priced plans for her family with all the major providers and come to this dismal conclusion:
"They all just market their plans a little differently, but when you put all the pieces together they come out almost the same," Fetter said, adding that she pays $268 monthly for four phones. "I look at it constantly. I'm constantly trying to figure out how to get rid of stuff... (but) I can't figure out how to make it cheaper."
And now her cellphone bill is more expensive than one her car payments, she noted.
"My cellphone bill used to be $60,” she said. “The next thing you know, it was $100, then $120, then $200, and they you are sitting there saying "Holy cow, how did it get to $260. What can I take off?"
The answer might lie in the data sent in by NBC News readers. Not everyone who wrote in said their bill was above the average cost listed in the CTIA industry report. In fact, 230 of the 1,400 said their bills were lower than $50 every month. Next week, we’ll talk to them and find out what their secrets are.
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