While I tend to be frugal in most areas of life, mobile data usage isn’t one of them. In fact, I make it rain data like confetti at Mardi Gras. I take long calls, stream Netflix in HD, and download entire discographies on Spotify.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I’d barely used 4GB of data last month.
All this time I’d just assumed that I was gobbling up terabytes; that my egregious data diet fully justified a $75/month “unlimited” data plan.
In all honesty, many of us should abandon our unlimited plans and switch to a significantly more affordable prepaid plan – saving $600+ per year in the process. To get there, we’ll answer three questions:
- How can you check how much data you’re currently using?
- What settings can you change to save data without slowing down your phone?
- What carrier/plan should you switch to save the most?
Without further ado, let’s cover the eight steps to reducing your mobile data usage (and saving hundreds).
1. See how much data you’re currently using
The first step in reducing your mobile data usage is to discover how much data you’re already using. Thankfully, your phone will tell you this in just a few taps:
- On Android – Head to Settings > Network & Internet > Data.
- On iPhone – Settings > Cellular or Settings > Mobile Data.
Developers love to change the names of menus with every update (e.g. “Network & Internet” becomes “Wireless and Data” for no reason), but dig around for a bit or use your phone’s internal “search” function and you’ll find it.
So how much do you use? Enough to justify unlimited data?
Or if you think you might, humor me and follow the steps below. Together we’ll “economize” your data usage without changing how you use your phone.
2. Limit which apps can use background refresh
By default, pretty much every app on your phone gives itself permission to use your data whenever it wants. For example, an email app may check for new emails every few minutes, or a social media app may download a 906MB update when you’re not looking.
Needless to say, “background app refresh” is a greedy vampire, sucking both battery and data out of your phone and giving little in return. You can disable it here:
- On Android – Head to Settings > Network & Internet > Data Usage > Allow Background Data set to OFF.
- On iPhone – Head to Settings > General > Background App Refresh.
It’s worth noting that you can also toggle which apps can refresh in the background by heading to their individual app settings, usually found in Settings > General > Apps.
3. Get in the habit of clearing your RAM
While I’m on the topic of apps sapping data, there’s a simple habit every smartphone user should develop that will greatly improve your relationship with your phone: clearing your RAM.
Now, if you socialized in high school instead of building a gaming PC (like I did), you may not be familiar with the concept of RAM. RAM, or random access memory, is how much stuff your smartphone or computer can juggle at once. For example, if you open 17 tabs in Google Chrome right now, your whole computer will slow down – that’s your RAM getting clogged up. Conversely, if you keep your RAM clear, everything runs and opens faster.
RAM on your smartphone tends to clog up quicker than on your laptop for three reasons:
- There’s less of it (4GB compared to 8GB or 16GB on your laptop).
- It’s manually cleared less often.
- Most folks don’t realize that clicking Home doesn’t close out the app, which runs in the background indefinitely.
It saddens me to think about how many people have spent $500+ replacing their “slow, old” phones when all they really needed was to clear their RAM. Sigh. At least you and your friends won’t.
Anyways, clearing your RAM will not only speed up your phone – it’ll greatly conserve your battery and prevent those rogue apps from draining your data. Plus, the most effective method of clearing RAM, closing apps, is also the fastest.
On Android and iPhones simply swipe up from the bottom and you’ll see all active apps. Swipe left and right to browse, and swipe up to close the app.
4. Tweak the settings in your most data-hungry apps
In addition to displaying how much data you use overall, the Cellular Data page in your phone settings will typically also show you which specific apps are soaking up the most precious gigs.
To no one’s surprise, the most data-hungry apps, in general, are streaming apps and social media apps, including Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify.
Even if you disable background app refresh and keep your RAM clear, these apps will still chomp away at your data plan like piranhas on a porterhouse.
Luckily, there are a few settings within each app’s menu that you can toggle to put them on a diet.
- Instagram – Profile > Settings > Cellular Data Use > Use Less Data.
- Snapchat – Profile > Settings > Additional Services > Manage > Data Saver.
- Netflix – Menu > App Settings > Cellular Data Usage > Wi-Fi Only or Data Saver (recommended).
- YouTube – Settings > Video Quality Preferences > Auto or Data Saver (recommended).
- Spotify – Settings > Data Saver.
5. Download songs, videos, and maps over Wi-Fi
In general, the biggest drain on data and battery life is streaming content. To illustrate, here’s how much data YouTube alone uses up at various resolutions, according to YouTube themselves:
- 480p: 562MB per hour.
- 720p: 1.9GB per hour.
- 1080p: 3.04GB per hour.
- 4K: 16GB per hour.
To summarize, if you stream 4K content for a little over an hour, you’ve already exceeded most providers’ “unlimited data” threshold of 22GB, and they’ll throttle your speeds the rest of the month.
Do I think you should stop watching 4K content? Not at all – just download it over Wi-Fi before you leave the house or the coffee shop. Not only does this save battery life and data, it often improves the quality of the image and eliminates stuttering.
You can download most Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube content over Wi-Fi to watch later, and although you’ll need the paid, Premium versions of the latter two services, it’s worth it. Remember how much you’ll be saving when you switch to a lower-tier data plan!
What about navigation apps?
It’s also worth mentioning that you can (and should) download maps and directions over Wi-Fi as well. Google Maps will let you download not just the steps to reach one destination, but maps of entire cities like San Francisco and Prague. With the Offline Maps feature, you can always find your way around foreign or off-the-grid areas without using a single KB of mobile data.
6. Call and text using Google Voice
Normal calls and texts not only chip away at your mobile data; they suck. By that I mean the basic phone and messaging apps on your phone are the least efficient and lowest quality way to handle those tasks. Virtually every alternative is superior in terms of quality and data usage.
It’s subjective, but if you ask me, the best overall alternative to data-based phone and messaging is Google Voice. Voice lets you call and text regular numbers, only it uses Wi-Fi instead of data. This means the audio quality is much clearer, texts go through faster, and as long as you’re tethered to Wi-Fi, neither plan touches your data plan.
Google Voice also gives you a handful of useful features for free, such as:
- Creating a new number – You can manage your Google Voice number separately from your regular number, using it as a business line or burner phone.
- Call screening – Google Voice can act as your “secretary,” asking unknown callers why they’re calling you and transcribing their response in real-time. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a superb defense against spammers and solicitors.
Popular alternatives to Google Voice include Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. All three are free, so tinker around to find the best Wi-Fi-based phone and text service for you.
7. Hop on Wi-Fi whenever possible
This may be the most obvious step, but it’s also the most overlooked – when possible, always try to keep your phone tethered to a local Wi-Fi.
Remember, home or public Wi-Fi networks are essentially springs of free, unlimited data. Just by standing near a Starbucks, you can download the entire 4th season of The Bachelor, and watch Peter somehow fail with all 30 women, without using a single byte of your data.
To further safeguard your data between hotspots, go back into the settings of the five social media and streaming apps listed above and set “Download Over Cellular?” to NO. This will also help you get into the healthy habit of downloading over Wi-Fi only.
But wait – before you download anything big on a public Wi-Fi network…
Don’t forget to use a VPN!
When you browse the web over public Wi-Fi, it’s remarkably easy for bad guys to monitor your activity and steal your sensitive personal data. That’s why using a virtual private network, or VPN, in public is so mission-critical.
In short, a VPN scrambles your internet activity so that bad guys can’t see what you’re doing or even know that you’re there. VPNs can even let you “appear” in other countries so you can download region-locked content like shows unique to Netflix Sweden.
Here are two VPNs I recommend:
- ExpressVPN is the Mercedes of VPNs, offering high speeds and all the bells and whistles you could ask for.
- Surfshark, on the other hand, delivers everything a VPN beginner needs for half the price, starting at just $2.50 per month.
Overall, if you plan to abandon your “unlimited” data plan and take better advantage of free Wi-Fi, a VPN is a no-brainer, bargain purchase.
8. Switch to a cheaper, prepaid plan
Once you’ve spent a little time on a “data diet,” you’ll have an idea of how little data you need to pay for each month.
But what if your carrier’s cheapest data plan is still like $55 a month? Wouldn’t switching to one of those budget carriers mean worse coverage and hidden fees?
Luckily, there are tons of low-cost options that offer service through major carriers like Verizon and AT&T. To find the right match for you, check out MU30’s favorites here.
To recap, here are the eight steps to reducing your mobile data usage so you can switch and save:
- See how much data you’re currently using.
- Limit which apps can use background refresh.
- Get in the habit of clearing your RAM.
- Tweak the settings in your most data-hungry apps.
- Download songs, videos, and directions over Wi-Fi.
- Call and text using Google Voice.
- Hop on Wi-Fi whenever possible.
- Switch to a cheaper prepaid plan.
As with all things in life, it’s not worth paying for what you don’t use!