Cell Phone Plans: How Much Data Do You Really Need?

April 28, 2016 Cell Phones, Utilities
Cell Phone Plans: How Much Data Do You Need?

Our love affair with data is strong. So strong, in fact, that many people burn through the data in their cell phone plans each month, then pay costly overages or suffer through painfully slow speeds, depending on their carriers.

Rather than bumping up your data plan — and your monthly bill — dig into your habits and learn more about your favorite apps. You may find you don’t need as much data as you thought you did.

To figure out how much data you really need, take these three steps:

  1. Know how much data you use. Don’t worry, you don’t need to keep a log. Your phone already tracks this for you.
  2. Understand how much data your apps use. Do you know how much data Netflix uses or how many streaming settings Spotify offers? Read on and you will.
  3. Learn how to adjust your usage. Small tweaks to your apps’ behavior, and your own, can cut the amount of data you use each month.

Once you’ve adjusted and tracked your data for month or two, you’ll know how much data you really need. Then you can find the plan that best fits your usage.

How much data you use

The average smartphone owner uses 2GB to 3GB of data each month. To know whether your usage falls above or below that threshold, look no further than your own phone.

Android data usage

Android data usage

Most phones track overall data usage. They also break down data usage by app, so you can see how many of your precious gigabytes are being drained by Spotify or Instagram.

To find your data usage on an Android device, go to “Settings,” then “Data usage.” You’ll see your total usage for a given date range, which you can change to align with your billing cycle, plus a breakdown by application. On an iPhone, the same information is in “Settings” under “Cellular.” If you’ve never set a date range, it will show your cumulative usage from the time you activated the phone. You can click “Reset Statistics” to start tracking your usage from a specific date. More on that below.

Most carriers also have a mobile app that will track your data usage. The My Verizon Mobile app, for example, calculates data usage for each line on your account.

» COMPARE: Best cell phone plans

How much data your apps use

As you were checking your stats, you probably noticed that some apps are more greedy than others. It’s common knowledge that streaming video or music uses heaps of data.

Streaming 30 minutes of video per day via apps such as Facebook, YouTube or Netflix uses more than 5GB of data in a month, for example. And streaming an hour of music per day adds up to almost 2GB over 30 days, according to Verizon Wireless’s Data Calculator.

What’s not common knowledge is how much data usage varies by app and streaming quality. Those can be big variables, so understanding the difference is important. Spotify has four streaming settings. Google Play has three. YouTube has seven and will adjust yours based on your connection, unless you select a streaming quality.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is. We broke down the data burned by some of your favorite apps so you can analyze your own usage.

AppData usage
SpotifyNormal: Listen to roughly 24 hours of music for 1GB of data.

High: Listen to roughly 14 hours of music for 1GB of data.

Extreme: Listen to roughly 7 hours of music for 1GB of data.
Google PlayStream about 7 hours of music per gigabyte at the highest quality setting. Normal and low-quality settings are also available.
PandoraListen to almost 35 hours of music for 1GB of data.
YouTubeVaries based on video quality, which ranges from 240p to 1080p and can be adjusted manually.

Verizon customers in the greater New York City metro area used an average of 24MB per minute while on YouTube in February 2016, according to network usage statistics from the carrier. At that rate, you’d burn through close to 1.5GB in an hour.
NetflixStream about 1 hour of standard-definition video per gigabyte. The app uses as much as 3GB per hour if streaming in HD.
Facebook and InstagramUse for more than 8 hours, with autoplay turned off, per gigabyte. Watching videos or uploading photos or videos uses more data.

How to adjust your usage

Once you know how much data your apps use, you can take steps to decrease your usage — and that doesn’t necessarily mean watching fewer videos. From your settings menu, you can turn off certain apps so they don’t use data at all, or you can adjust the settings in your favorite apps to reduce your data usage without really changing how you use your phone. You’ll need to do this in each app, though you can focus on the ones that take up the most data.

iOS data usage

iOS data usage

Switch to a lower streaming quality on music and video apps. You can usually find this option in each app’s Settings menu.

You should also check the settings on your social media apps, many of which also play videos. Facebook, for example, automatically plays videos in your feed as you scroll. This can eat up a lot of data. Manage this feature by going to “App Settings” while in your Facebook app and clicking on “Autoplay.” Then select either “Never Autoplay Videos” or choose to play them only when connected to Wi-Fi.

That brings us to the next great way to minimize your data usage: Wi-Fi.

When you connect to Wi-Fi, you stop using cellular data. That means you can stream, download and upload to your heart’s content without cutting into your data allotment.

If you always listen to Spotify on your commute, download your playlist while you’re home and connected to Wi-Fi, then listen in offline mode and save your data for something else, suggests Phil Burrows, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

Educating yourself on data should go a long way toward managing your usage. But if you’re still running up high data numbers and can’t figure out why, Burrows suggests talking to your carrier.

“Don’t be afraid to swing by,” Burrows says. “Whether it’s via Web chat or with someone at the store, these guys live, eat and breathe this stuff and they can walk you through how you’re using your phone.”

» MORE: 3 steps to getting a cheap cell phone plan

Revisiting your plan

After you’ve made adjustments — to your apps’ behavior and your own — you can determine how many gigabytes you actually need. A good rule of thumb is to wait a month or two for your usage to reflect your new habits. Then check your bill, your carrier’s app or your phone’s data usage meter. If your usage is well under your current plan’s limits, it might be time to switch plans — or even providers.

Each wireless company structures its plans differently. The table below will help you compare pricing among the four main carriers. Keep in mind features, like unlimited video or music streaming, when choosing a plan. And don’t forget to consider coverage. Saving $10 per month on a data package — prepaid or traditional — won’t mean much if you can’t use your phone where you want.

 AT&TSprintT-MobileVerizon
1GB or less$45 (300MB)$40 (1GB)N/AN/A
2-3GB$55 (2GB)$50 (3GB)$50 (2GB)$55 (2GB)
4-6GB$75 (5GB)$65 (6GB)$65 (6GB)$70 (4GB)
8-10GBN/AN/A$80 (10GB)$90 (8GB)
12-15GB$115 (15GB)$80 (12GB)N/AN/A
16-20GB$155 (20GB)N/AN/A$110 (16GB)
22-25GB$190 (25GB)$100 (24GB)N/A$130 (24GB)
Unlimited $100 (must have DirecTV or U-verse)$75$95N/A
Get started on AT&T's
site
Get started on Sprint's site
Get started on T-Mobile's site
Get started on Verizon's site

Prepaid plans are also worth considering. The four major wireless companies each offer prepaid options. They also lease their networks to carriers like Straight Talk and Tracfone. Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile also own prepaid carriers that are branded under a different name, such as Boost Mobile or Cricket Wireless. If you can make them work, these plans can save you hundreds each year.

NerdWallet has partnered with BillShark, a company that can help save you money by negotiating your bills for you. If BillShark determines that you’re already getting the best rates, there’s no cost to you.

A version of this article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.

Kelsey Sheehy is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ksheehy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.

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