What we suspected we now know is true: Cell phones have taken over. What was a luxury for adults as recently as a few years ago has become a must-have for most people and many families -- right down to the kids.

Even Barbie is into the act with Mattel's introduction of the new Barbie cell phone targeted at "pre-teen girls eight and older who want to act like their parents."

If cell phone bills are leaving you begging for mercy you have an out.


Prepaid cell-phone service is a simple concept, a lot like a prepaid phone card. You buy the cell phone (some companies are giving a free phone to get started), activate it and then pay to put minutes or "units" on your account.

As you use the phone, minutes come off your account. When you run low you pay to add more minutes. It's so simple a school child can do it.

Look Ma, no bill!

Possibly the best thing about prepaid cell-phone plans are all the "Nos":

No contracts to sign

No monthly bills

No long-term commitments

No credit checks

No age limits

No hidden fees

Two big questions

Two issues you should consider when going with prepaid cell-phones:

1. What happens to unused minutes?

2. Are there limitations on the calling area?

Unused minutes: With some plans your minutes are good for only a limited time, typically, 30 to 90 days. If you don't use them, you lose them.

Calling area: Some prepaid cell phones work in a very limited local calling area. With some plans if you are outside your local area, your phone will not allow you to make or receive calls.

Who should prepay?

Prepaid wireless makes a lot of sense for seniors, teens and kids and all others who are not heavy users or active talkers.

Across the pond

My first introduction to prepaid cell phones was last year during a trip to England. There, prepaid "mobiles" are wildly popular, particularly among the younger set.

My friends Shane and Jake in Blackpool think of minutes the way lots of kids think of candy. They use their allowances to buy sweets (candy), football stickers (soccer cards) and minutes for their mobiles-used more for texting their friends than to speak with their mum and dad.

Back at home almost all of the wireless providers offer some kind of prepaid plans now. Perhaps the place to start researching prepaid service is with your current provider, then compare with other plans. Just log onto the company's website and look for "Prepaid." But be aware, your current phone is not likely to convert to prepaid. You will need to buy (or get for free if you can) a phone that is compatible.

TracFone offers rates as low as 10 cents per minute. TracFone is the largest mobile phone provider but doesn't actually own any cell phone towers. They simply lease air time from the local cellular providers. That means your TracFone will work anywhere that cell phone service is available.

Your TracFone minutes never expire as long as you keep your phone active. There are two ways to do that:

The first is to just add more minutes to your account. Whenever you buy a standard 40, 100, 200, or 400 "unit" airtime card, your phone will automatically be extended another 60 days, up to a maximum of 120 days. There is also a one year card that costs about $95 with 150 units of air time. This is for the person who needs a phone but only in cases of emergency.