The family cell-phone bill: How to find savings on shared wireless plans


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The wireless industry’s pivot to pitching unlimited-data plans hasn’t freed customers from having to do the math about the merits of these deals—and when you start exploring the four big carriers’ family-plan discounts, the calculations get exponentially more complex.

The ads you’ll see don’t make it look that way, instead emphasizing the initial savings you can get by putting two, three, four or more lines on one plan with no-limits data for all. This generosity is not by accident: The more devices and people you have on an account, the harder is to switch them all to a competing service.

(The same logic applies to “triple-play” bundles of Internet, TV and phone service–except that unlike family-plan deals, those packages usually get much more expensive after the first year or two.)

So any decision to sign up for a multiple-line deal has to weigh the “stickiness” factor. If you’re OK doing business for a while with the company involved, you can then assess unlimited vs. limited — which at two of four carriers, will only be an option with their prepaid brands.

Note that all these prices assume you’ve set up automatic payments, which some services require you to make from a bank account or debit card; forget using a cash-back credit card. Also bear in mind that if you use an iPhone, the data-usage display in the Settings app doesn’t break things down by month, so you’ll need to check your bill to see how much data you use.

►At AT&T, less-frequent users should decline its pricey unlimited-data offers in favor of Mobile Share Flex plans that let you share a bucket of data across devices. For instance, $105 will put two phones on a 10 GB shared plan, while unlimited data for two phones runs $145. With four phones, the cost gap narrows: $185 for unlimited data, $180 for 20 GB shared. AT&T’s prepaid costs even less: $75 for two lines with 6 GB each, $130 for four with 6 GB each.

“Postpaid” means traditional subscriptions, where you’re billed after you use the service, while prepaid has you pay in advance for a month of service or a preset usage level.

Sprint has been the most aggressive discounter as it seeks to recover from a slow buildout of its LTE network, hence a $100 rate for two to five lines of unlimited data through March 2019. After that, two lines would still cost $100, with a third, fourth and fifth line each adding $30 a month. Its Boost Mobile prepaid brand, however, costs even less, especially if you need 3 GB or less per line ($60 for two lines, $120 for four).

► T-Mobile, like Sprint, only sells unlimited subscriptions: two lines cost $120 a month and four cost $160 (these rates, unlike at other firms, include all taxes and fees). But if you need 5 GB or less per line, its MetroPCS prepaid brand will save you money: two lines with 5 GB each go for $70 a month and four with 5 GB apiece cost $130.

►At Verizon, two lines of unlimited data cost $130, four lines $160, but remember that adding full-speed mobile-hotspot usage will add $10 per line. Its shared-use, limited-data plans top out at 8 GB, making them only relevant for two-phone scenarios (for instance, 8 GB on two phones costs $110), but its prepaid plans are cheaper still (7 GB per line cost $85 for two phones, $155 for four).

Lest this column look like a poorly-camouflaged endorsement of prepaid service, remember that those services generally don’t let you make installment-plan payments on phones and sometimes won’t allow phones bought elsewhere. They almost always exclude discounted international roaming; some limit you to WiFi use overseas.

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