When I signed my family up for our cellphone plan, I thought it contained more than enough data for us. How could any person possibly go over 5 gigabytes in one month?
Then I got a notification saying one of our lines was over the limit, and I would need to purchase an extra gigabyte for $10 to keep going. I shrugged it off, bought it and went on with my life … until two days later, when I got the same notification again.
It turns out, my wife had disconnected from our house’s Wi-Fi without realizing it, and racked up a surprising amount of data watching Instagram stories — not something you would consider an obvious culprit, but it’s actually quite the data muncher.
If this story sounds all too familiar and you’re dead set against shelling out for an unlimited plan, your phone offers a few tools to help you cut back.
Let’s start with the most obvious, but most important tip: connect to Wi-Fi, especially when you’re at home.
OK, that may sound too painfully obvious to put in this article, but look at your phone right now: Are you connected to Wi-Fi? I’m shocked by how often I ask this simple question to friends and family only to find that they weren’t actually connected, even at their own home. (They’re often equally shocked.) Make sure that little Wi-Fi icon shows up at the top of your phone whenever you’re near a network. By connecting to Wi-Fi at home and work, you can eliminate a huge amount of data usage without changing your behavior at all. Just remember that free, public Wi-Fi isn’t as secure as the Wi-Fi at home, so check out these tips to stay safe while you’re out and about.
Next, it’s time to drill down and see where that data is going. Sometimes, it’s obvious: If you just spent three days in bed bingeing Netflix on your phone, you can bet money that’s your culprit. In other cases, you may not know where all those gigabytes went, and you’ll need to hunt down the biggest data hogs.
If you’re using an iPhone, open the Settings app and head to the Cellular section. Scroll down, and you’ll see a list of apps under the Cellular Data heading, in order from heaviest to lightest data usage. Under each app, you’ll see how much data it has used in the “current period.”
Here’s where things get confusing: Your “current period” isn’t your current billing period. Instead, it is reporting all the data you’ve used since you last reset these settings. So if you haven’t manually reset them in a while (or ever), there is a good chance you aren’t getting useful information here. Scroll down to the very bottom, tap Reset Statistics and go about your life for another few days. Then you can come back to this screen and see which app is using the most data. (Note: If you see a large amount of data under the Wi-Fi Assist option on this page, you may want to turn it off — this feature is designed to fall back on cellular data when Wi-Fi is weak, but can backfire in rare instances when you are connected to Wi-Fi.)
If you’re using a phone with Google’s Android software, open the Settings app and head to Network & Internet > Mobile Network > App Data Usage. (This location may vary depending on your phone — on Samsung devices, for example, you will find it under Settings > Connections > Data Usage > Mobile Data Usage.) You will see a graph of your data usage over the last month, along with the apps that have used the most data. If your billing cycle ends on a different day of the month (mine, for example, ends on the fifth), you can tap the gear icon to adjust the cycle date. You can also set an alert after a certain amount of data usage, so you aren’t caught off guard.
Once you have an idea of the worst offenders, figure out ways to dial back their data usage. Here are some common culprits and how you can curb their appetite.
Dropbox, Google Photos and iCloud Photos: If you take a lot of photos and video, some apps allow you to automatically back those photos up as you go. By default, they shouldn’t back up your photos unless you’re on Wi-Fi, but if you have changed these settings in the past, they may be eating up your data (remember, uploading counts against your data too). Check the app’s settings and turn off uploads while on cellular.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: Many social networking apps have the ability to auto-play videos as you scroll through your feed, which can use data quickly. If you find this happening in your favorite social app, head to the app’s settings and look for the auto-playing video option — set it to Wi-Fi only, or turn it off altogether.
YouTube, Netflix and other video players: You probably already know watching videos can blow through your data, but you don’t have to cut yourself off cold turkey. For a compromise, look through your binge-watching app of choice for an option to lower the video quality. If you can stand to watch videos in standard definition (480 pixels or below) instead of HD (720 pixels and above), you’ll use less data.
Spotify, Podcasts and other audio apps: While audio doesn’t use up nearly as much data as video, you can still chug through your allotment if you jam from sunup to sundown. Streaming apps like Spotify allow you to download playlists at home for offline listening. Use these features as much as possible: Next time you’re on Wi-Fi, download your favorite playlists and grab podcast episodes before you leave home.
App updates: It’s a good idea to keep your apps up-to-date, but letting automatic updates run wild on cellular data isn’t really necessary. On the iPhone, head to Settings > Your Name > iTunes & App Stores, and turn Automatic Downloads off under Cellular Data. On Android, open the Google Play Store, tap the three lines in the upper left corner, and head to Settings > Auto-Update Apps and choose Over Wi-Fi Only.
If the app in question doesn’t have a setting that does what you want, you may be able to limit it at the operating system level. On the iPhone, head to Settings, scroll down to the app in question and turn off Background App Refresh, which will limit it from using data in the background. Or, from that Settings > Cellular screen, you can toggle the switch next to any given app to prevent it from using cellular data at all, allowing it to work only over Wi-Fi.
Android users can tap on an app from the Mobile Data Usage screen to turn off background data.
If all else fails, it may be worth looking into a better data plan for you and your family. Unlimited plans have made a comeback in recent years, but if they are too expensive for you, see what other carriers have to offer for the same price. In fact, if you are still with one of the big four — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — you might be able to get better bang for your buck by switching to a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, like Cricket Wireless, Mint Mobile or Metro. They use the same networks as their bigger competitors, but with lower prices. If you can get a bigger data plan for the same amount of money you are currently paying (while eschewing expensive features you don’t use), you won’t have to ration your internet usage like it’s 1993 dial-up.