Our love affair with data is strong. So strong, in fact, that wireless carriers are doubling down on unlimited data.
Rather than bumping up to unlimited, dig into your habits and learn more about your favorite apps. You can likely cut down your data usage with a few simple tweaks. And you may find you can reduce your data plan — and your monthly bill — in the process.
To figure out how much data you really need, take these three steps:
Know how much data you use. Don’t worry, you don’t need to keep a log. Your phone already tracks this for you.
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.
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 5GB of data each month. To know whether your usage falls above or below that threshold, look no further than your own phone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.