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Don't Cell Yourself Short

  • Mary Hunt The Cheapskate Monthly
  • 2004 15 Mar
Don't Cell Yourself Short

Louise got the shock of her life when she opened her first cell phone bill.


How on earth could her $19.99 calling plan zoom to more than $300? Clearly a case of inaccurate decimal placement. Or was it?


It took only a few minutes with customer service for Louise to learn the sad truth: Her needs and the dirt-cheap calling plan she signed up for were not even on the same planet. She failed to understand a few important details about cell phone usage, or more accurately, wireless communication. And now she's stuck with a one-year contract.


Louise is not alone. Most cell phone users know more about the cool features on their phones than they do about roaming charges, air time allotments or home calling areas.


Wireless phone. Any phone that transmits signals through the air without a physical connection.


Minutes. In wireless speak, minutes mean air time-actual time spent talking on the cellular phone. In the U.S. you rack up air time whether you place or receive the call. The air time meter runs even when you place toll-free calls or calls to directory assistance. The only exception: 911 calls.


Anytime minutes. This is the air time included in your particular plan that you can use anytime of day or night during the month. Unless your plan includes a "rollover" provision, if you don't use your minutes you'll lose them. Louise learned that her $19.99 plan included only 150 minutes of air time. Each minute of air time over cost her $.49.


Home calling area. This is defined by your service plan. If you make or receive a call outside the boundaries of your home area, expect to be charged long distance and or roaming fees on top of air time. Louise had no idea her particular home calling area was so limited.


Roaming. This is the price you pay for the ability to make or receive calls outside your home calling area. Roaming charges can get very expensive. Louise paid $.79 for each minute of roaming on top of air time and long distance charges.


Long-distance rate. This is the rate you pay per minute for calls you place outside of your home calling area. It can vary greatly from one plan to another and is charged on top of roaming and air time. Louise was charged nearly $1.50 per minute for calling long distance.


National long-distance. If you have this as part of your plan you can call anywhere within the 50 states without incurring additional charges. Beware: Roaming charges may still apply.


Off-peak. The part of the day defined by the provider when customers can expect to pay reduced air time rates, usually evenings and weekends. Louise's plan included 250 off-peak minutes. Foolishly she assumed that meant anytime after 5pm. She learned too late that her plan defines off-peak hours this way: Weekdays from 9pm to 7am the next morning and all weekend from Friday 9pm until Monday at 7am.


Other services. The fancy features offered by some phones and service providers these days, like text messaging, sending digital photos, email, Internet connection, call waiting, even voice

mail can be add-ons that are charged separately.


Activation fee. A one-time fee charged by many service providers. Louise got socked with a $36 activation fee.


Cancellation fee. This is a charge ranging from $100 to $240 or more that you pay for canceling a phone contract.


Had Louise asked a few important questions prior to choosing a plan, she could have saved herself a lot of grief and a pile of dough.


At what time of day will I be making most of my calls?


On average, how long do I expect each call to last?


How selective will I be in giving out my cell phone number?


Will I use my cell phone for long distance calling?


How often do I expect to travel outside my home calling area?


While it was an expensive lesson, Louise got a second chance. Her provider allowed her to switch to a $39.99 plan that includes 600 anytime minutes and 5,000 off-peak minutes. She has a detailed map showing her home calling area. She'll be careful to use her pre-paid calling card from a landline for long distance ($.03 a minute with her Sam's Club AT&T card) to avoid roaming and long distance charges.


And her cell phone number? These days if you ask her for it Louise will tell you sweetly that it is confidential, available on a need-to-know basis only.

© 2003 The Cheapskate Monthly. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

  "The Cheapskate Monthly" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt.  What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt.  Today, "The Cheapskate Monthly" is read by close to 100,000 Cheapskates.      Click here to subscribe.

Seeking financial harmony in your marriage? Read Mary Hunt's book Debt-Proof Your Marriage published by  Revell.