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On a recent family road trip, I paused for just a moment when my daughter started watching a show on Netflix on an iPhone in the back seat, using the cellular connection.

How much data will this consume? Are we getting close to our monthly limit? Maybe she should be reading a book instead?

Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Yes, this is mobile life on a meter.

Last year, I gave up my unlimited data plan and switched instead to AT&T’s shared family data plan — opting for cost savings and more features in the short run, and risking the possibility that, over time, the explosion in data-hungry devices will make me regret my decision to let go of my grandfathered status.

Commenting on my post at the time, readers called me everything from stupid to short-sighted to a shill for AT&T. But I was simply being pragmatic and taking a calculated long-term risk with a very noticeable short-term reward — specifically, a reduction of more than $35/month in my bill.

And more than a year later, I have zero regrets.

Yes, there are times, such as the brief moment on that road trip, when I think about how much data my family is using. And one time in the past year, we did actually exceed our 4GB monthly limit. We forgot to connect a new smartphone to our home wireless network, which meant it was defaulting to the cellular network and consuming data that normally wouldn’t have counted against our limit. We also happened to be without an Internet connection in the office for a few days, which also contributed to the overage.

But other than that, we’ve never gotten near the limit. And this is important: even with the extra $30 charge for going over the limit, my bill that month was slightly less than what I was paying every month under my previous unlimited plan.

Bottom line, even with that charge, I’ve saved about $400 over the past year, just as I expected when I made the shift. In addition, I’m no longer paying $25/month to use a prepaid USB laptop stick from another carrier, because tethering (using my phone as a mobile hotspot) is included with the shared data plan.

This decision is not one-size-fits-all, and my choice may not be the right one for you. We have two smartphones on our shared data plan, and depending on how much data you use, shifting from your existing unlimited plan may not save you money. And maybe you don’t need tethering. My best advice is to look closely at your actual data usage before making a decision.

My colleague John Cook, for one, is holding tight to his unlimited data plan. As you can imagine, we’ve had some good debates about this. I understand his reasoning: he doesn’t want to think about his usage, even for a moment. And someday he may need all that data.

But in addition to paying hundreds of dollars a year more than he should to AT&T, he can’t tether his phone to his computer. When we were without Internet in the office, I politely suggested he siphon a connection from someone else rather than pushing me further toward or over my limit.

John may get the last laugh someday, when he’s blissfully streaming unlimited data to his smartwatch, smartglasses and, no doubt, his butt. Until then, I’m happy to pocket the savings and enjoy better features.

And yes, my daughter should be reading a book rather than watching Netflix anyway.

Smartphone image via Shutterstock.

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