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Budget shopping tips: Cell phones

CNET Associate Editor Nicole Lee shares some general tips on shopping for a cell phone on a budget.

Basic phones are just fine if you just want to make calls and not much else.
Corinne Schulze/CNET

Almost everyone needs a cell phone these days, but owning one can be expensive. Here are a few tips to make the most of your dollar when it comes to cell phones and carrier plans.

Get only what you need
Sure that Apple iPhone 3G is sexy, and sure that Palm Pre is all the rage. But will you actually use all the features on those phones? If the answer is no, then resist the urge to jump on the hype bandwagon. If all you want a cell phone for is making calls, a basic cell phone will do just fine. Of course, if you do want extra features like a keyboard for messaging or a camera for taking photos, then you'll have to do your research to find the best one for the lowest price. If you already have a phone - stick with it! You don't always have to get the latest and greatest device if your phone still works. The best way to save money is to not spend it at all.

Consider refurbished phones
Many carriers now offer refurbished phones for a discount, and a lot of them are very good phones that are only a little bit used.

Go prepaid if you're fickle
If you're fickle with carriers and don't want to pay a penalty for cancelling contracts, the prepaid route might be good for you. Prepaid plans are also good for those who only use their cell phones occasionally, or for emergency purposes, since you pay per minute or day of use. But beware, you will often pay a premium for the handset itself since there's no contract.

Choose the right plan
If you're a heavy cell phone user, you're better off opting for a monthly plan with a realistic number of minutes. Be careful to choose the right number of minutes, because if you go over your monthly minute allotment, you'll be charged expensive overage fees. It's generally better to overestimate your minute usage. Be aware of all extra fees (don't make too many 411 calls for example), and if your plan charges for nationwide roaming, pay attention to your home area's boundaries.

Get a messaging bundle or data plan if it applies
If you're going to use text messaging, multimedia messaging, e-mail, or Web browsing on a regular basis, it's best to get a message bundle or a data plan. Otherwise, you'll be charged on per-use basis. Of course the "Get only what you need" rule applies here as well -- if you don't plan on using a data plan, then don't sign onto one.

Get a family plan if possible
A family plan lets you share your monthly airtime allowance with additional lines for family members and prepaid plans, so you can pay for the allotted amount up front.

Take advantage of free calling minutes
Some carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless allows free calling minutes to your selected group of phone numbers. These can include calls to other cell phones on the same carrier, calls to cell phones on any carrier, or calls to a select set of phone numbers--even landlines. Check your carrier for specifics. Also: Most monthly plans have unlimited nights and weekends, so plan to make most of your calls during those times.