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Help! My family plan's gotten out of control

Gathering friends and family onto one family plan can save you big bucks, but is it worth the headache? CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers advice.

The wireless wars are heating up, which means great deals for consumers. And the best deals by far go to the folks on big family plans.

Verizon made headlines last month when it announced a new unlimited data plan. Then T-Mobile revised its unlimited plan to match Verizon. Sprint followed with its own promotion. Finally, AT&T announced updates to its unlimited plan. These new offerings promise consumers a lot more value at competitive prices. Luckily for bargain hunters, the unlimited arrangements are also available to people on family plans.

Spreading the cost of your monthly service among 10 people on a family plan can save you big bucks. But is managing all those lines really worth the headache?

That's the question I try to answer in this edition of Ask Maggie.

Dear Maggie,

I'm a college student, so we don't have much extra cash to spend. My wife's friends are in a similar boat, so we've joined together on a family plan to save money. But now the plan is getting out of control. At one point we had 14 people on the same AT&T plan. With the latest AT&T unlimited deal, I've now split the plan into two. One has 10 lines and the other four lines.

The bill is more than $1,000 a month, including payments for devices and taxes and fees. It takes me hours to calculate the bill every month. And with all the changes to plans, it's like a second job for me to scope out deals and switch things around to make sure we're getting the most for our money.

Is there a better way to do this? Should I just give up?

Runaway Family Plan

Dear Runaway,

You definitely have the right idea when it comes to saving money. Single-line wireless plans usually cost $50 or more a month. You can significantly cut that cost if you move to a family plan.

All four major carriers -- AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint-- now offer unlimited data plans, and that includes unlimited data for families. The deals they promote the most are for family plans that include four people. In these plans, customers can get unlimited data for around $40 a month. But the more people you add to the family plan, the lower the per line cost is. All four major carriers let you add up to 10 lines.

Comparing prices, it looks like all the carriers are bunched together, within a spread of about $5 per month per line. For 10 people on an account, before taxes and fees, AT&T's plan costs $30.50 per line; Verizon is $30 per line; T-Mobile is about $29 per line; and Sprint without a special offer is around $34 per line for 10 lines. (Sprint is offering a special promotion until March 31 for customers switching to its service. Customers can get five lines for $90 per month, or $18 per month per line.)

There's no question you can save some serious dough pooling all your friends into a single family plan. As you've pointed out, though, the management of such a plan can be a huge headache. All these plans with the best pricing require you to set up autopay. While this is likely the easiest and most convenient way to pay your bill, it also means you're on the hook for collecting all your friends' money for the bill each month.

A few years ago, Sprint courted customers interested in these extended family plans with its "Framily" plan. The idea was that the more people you added to the plan, the deeper the discount. An account with 10 lines cost $30 per line. But the best feature of the plan was it allowed each individual to be billed separately. Sprint no longer offers this plan to new customers.

The bottom line

So what should you do? It depends on how strapped for cash you and your friends are. If it were me, I'd cut my friends loose. I'm a self-professed cheapskate, and I'm willing to work a little bit to save a buck. But time is money. And managing the chaos you described would be a bit too much work for me.

If that seems too harsh and too expensive, you could split the group into smaller family groups. That way you'd still get a price break on your service, but you wouldn't have to deal with the headache of managing 10-plus people on a single account.

To get more ideas on how to save money on your wireless bill, check out my CNET colleague Patrick Holland's take on finding the cheapest plans.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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