The Value and Practice of a Data Diet: How To Drastically Cut Mobile Data Costs

Over the summer, my family went on a road trip vacation to Yellowstone. On the way out and on the way back, we used quite a lot of mobile data – uploading pictures, downloading park-related apps, looking for roadside attractions, and so on. At one point, my son watched a Netflix movie without realizing that it wasn’t wi-fi. I forgot to turn off background downloading for my podcast listening app. You get the picture.

For the first time ever, we hit our data cap, which, with our plan, basically slows our data to a crawl unless we upgrade our plan. This was kind of a frustration, as it either meant an extra expense or else a lack of data for the remainder of the trip, so we talked it over and forked out the cash for more data.

We were gorging on data, and it was costing us. We needed a data diet.

Mobile data is expensive, no matter how you slice it. Depending on your provider, it can easily cost anywhere from $1 to $3 per gigabyte unless you buy a large quantity at once as part of a broader plan. If you’re using that much data, it’s usually to access paid services anyway.

What makes it worse is that, most of the time, mobile data is chiefly used for entertainment and distraction. You check social media or watch a video or listen to streaming music or visit a few rich websites and, before you know it, your whole data plan has been slurped up.

What this adds up to is that the cute social media and streaming apps on your phone aren’t really free. They’re costing you a surprising amount of money for the data, an amount that rises the more you use them.

(We won’t even get into the question of the actual life value you’re getting from those apps, which is an entirely different ball of worms. How much is Twitter really worth, anyway?)

There are a lot of simple steps you can take to cut down on those costs, however. It just requires some smarter cell phone use and some settings adjustments. Here are 10 strategies you can follow, ones we have been careful to adopt into our lives in the aftermath of our family’s Great Yellowstone Internet Blackout.

Strategy #1 – Turn Off Cellular Data

This one’s easy. Just turn off the cellular data on your phone entirely unless there’s a specific reason to be using it. This doesn’t mean you’re putting your phone into full “airplane mode” – you’re able to send and receive calls and texts – but that your phone is not sending or receiving other types of data with the nearest cell tower. No social media data being swapped in the background, no podcasts downloading when you’re not thinking about it, nothing.

Doing this provides another subtle benefit: it basically eliminates notifications on your phone, which means that you’re far less distracted in the moment. If you want to be in the here and now, one great way to do it is to turn off the cellular data. All of those email and social media and other alerts will simply dry up and you’ll be left with only notifications about actual calls or texts. (Of course, you can turn them off too by going into airplane mode – which is nice if you just want to snap a few pictures but want no distractions – or by turning it off entirely.)

You can turn off cellular data on your iPhone by launching the Settings app, tap on Cellular, and then tap the switch next to Cellular Data.

On Android, you can turn off cellular data by pulling down on your notifications bar and tapping Settings, then tap the Data Usage option, then tap on the switch along the top of that screen to turn it off.

Strategy #2 – Don’t Use Standalone Social Media Apps

Social media apps provide a powerful way to constantly keep up to date with the latest postings from your friends and from people you are following, but they are subtle data hogs as well. They’re constantly working in the background, checking for updates on your behalf and slowly chipping away at your data.

One way to avoid all of that while still enjoying social media on your phone is to simply stop using the apps themselves and instead check social media solely within the web browser on your phone. This way, you don’t have the apps quietly downloading and uploading data in the background. You have a much firmer control over the data usage on your phone.

To do this, simply delete all of the apps related to social media services on your phone – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – and instead sign into those services using the web browser on your phone. Use their web interfaces for those services going forward. (Yes, some services like Snapchat insist on app usage, so this isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a pretty good one.)

One change is that you’ll no longer have alerts on your phone the next time that one of your friends posts a picture of their cat, but you can still keep tabs on them via the web browser if you so choose, and you’ll do so with a lot less data usage.

Strategy #3 – Turn Off Video Autoplay

Likely, you’ll keep some of the social media apps on your phone, the ones pertaining to the services you pay the most attention to, because you like receiving those updates. That’s fine – every service you trim will help a little.

However, another nasty data-devouring trick that many apps pull on you is that they autoplay videos as you scroll through the updates. That silly video your friend just shared will start playing the second you scroll to it, without you doing anything to activate it. That, right there, is gobbling data, and gobbling it for the most silly of things.

There’s a simple fix for that: just turn off video autoplay and image preloading on any social media apps you keep using. You can do that by going into the settings for that individual app and looking for options for video autoplay and for image preloading and turning them off.

Those two simple moves won’t cut into your ability to check social media to your heart’s content, but it will stop that crazy political video that your uncle just shared from blaring on your phone and gobbling down your data.

Strategy #4 – Turn Off Background Refresh

It turns out that there are many applications that use background refreshing on smart phones to keep themselves updated. They gobble down data quietly in the background so that you’ll see the latest updates when you open the app, almost instantly.

The problem, of course, is that the background data gobbling is a constant thing. Whenever you’re away from wi-fi, your data plan is slowly being drawn down by all of the background refreshing.

The easiest solution to this is to turn off background refreshing on as many apps as possible. If you don’t really need background refreshing in a certain app, turn it off.

You can do this on iOS by opening up the Settings app, tapping on the General option, then on the Background App Refresh option. From there, you can turn each individual app off and on, or simply toggle the switch at the top to turn them all off.

On Android, you can do this by pulling down the notification bar and tapping on the gear symbol, scroll down to the Wireless and Networks section and tap on Data Usage, then tap on the three dots to the right and tap on Restrict Background Data.

Strategy #5 – Turn On Wi-Fi Only Mode

Another option, one that’s available on an app-by-app basis, is to turn on “wi-fi only” mode. This means that the app will only use data when you’re connected to wi-fi, which means that it won’t gobble through your data plan.

This is a feature that typically has to be set within individual apps, so you’ll have to go into the settings for each app on your phone and see if there is a wi-fi only option for that app. Most well-crafted apps have such an option, but it is far from standardized.

This is a particularly good feature for apps that center around downloading new content when it’s available and storing it on your phone for later consumption, such as podcast manager apps. If you listen to a lot of podcasts on your phone, setting your podcast manager app to only download over wi-fi will save you a tremendous amount of data.

Strategy #6 – Use Opera Mini

If you follow strategy #2, you’ll find yourself switching to using your browser app on your phone quite a bit more than before. Some browsers are more efficient than others in terms of how they use and download data, but there’s a pretty clear consensus that if you’re looking primarily for a browser that excels in minimizing data use over the cellular network, Opera Mini is it.

Opera Mini is designed from the ground up for that purpose – minimizing cellular data use. It uses a number of tricks, such as really intelligent preloading of websites when you’re on wi-fi, to ensure that you use only the minimum amount of data when you’re in cellular range.

Just install Opera Mini on your phone and start using it as your default web browser. You can find it for your smartphone of choice by simply visiting the Opera website; it’ll redirect you to where you need to go.

Strategy #7 – Look for a Browser Data Saver Mode

If you can’t (or won’t) use Opera Mini, one alternative is to see if your browser of choice has a “data saver” mode.

Different web browsers handle this in vastly different ways, and with the wide variety of mobile web browsers out there, standardization of this feature is impossible, but in general, a browser’s “data saver” mode uses a number of clever shortcuts to reduce the amount of data that they use when operating over a cellular data connection.

For example, the “data saver” mode used by Google Chrome routes most of your web browsing through Google itself, which compresses all of the data before sending it across your data connection to your phone, which uncompresses it. Other browsers use other techniques to achieve similar effects.

While this won’t make a world-changing difference in your data usage, it’s a simple step you can take to cut down on your data use without seeing any real difference in how you use your phone or how well it works. You can see if your browser of choice has a data saver mode by exploring the individual app settings for that browser on your phone.

Strategy #8 – Create a Wi-Fi Only Folder for Data Hogs

This is a little trick that makes for a slick reminder of the fact that streaming apps really are data hogs.

All you have to do is simply put all of your streaming music and video apps in a folder named “WI-FI ONLY” so you don’t make the mistake of using them when on mobile. This includes apps like Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, Amazon Instant Video, and so on.

This won’t make a bit of difference in your actual data usage except that it will force you to have a little reminder of the fact that those apps will indeed slurp down your data if you’re not careful. Often, such a little reminder can be just enough to convince you to not use that app at all and wait until you’re in a wi-fi area.

Strategy #9 – Pre-Download Rich Media

As someone who listens to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks and sometimes watches Netflix videos on his phone, I’ve found that pre-downloading media before I go anywhere is a really good routine to get into.

All I simply do is check my podcast and audiobook apps and make sure that I have some fresh content downloaded before I head out. If I know I might end up with a lot of downtime and might watch a video, I’ll fire up Netflix, choose what I want to watch, and tap on the “download” icon (it looks like a small arrow pointing downward into a tray). That enables me to watch the video wherever I’m at without using my data plan.

Doing this enables me to listen to podcasts or audiobooks in the car without worrying about data, even over a very long car trip. I also don’t have to worry about a poor data signal causing the audio to freeze and for me to lose the narrative of the story. The same is true for pre downloaded Netflix videos – I can watch them anywhere without worrying about buffering and without worrying about data charges.

Strategy #10 – Choose Data-Savvy Smartphone Entertainment

One final strategy to consider is to simply choose data-savvy smartphone entertainment choices, ones that don’t rely on constant data exchange with a remote server.

For example, consider changing your primary source of entertainment on your phone from streaming music to predownloaded podcasts, or switching from data-hungry mobile games to ebooks.

The key here is to recognize that not all apps are the same regarding their data use, and by simply choosing to get your entertainment fix from apps that use less data, you’re going to end up saving yourself quite a lot of data plan headaches.

Final Thoughts

Over the last several months, Sarah and I have been implementing these strategies in our day to day lives, primarily in ways that allow us to do what we want with our phones while simply using less data in the process.

I’ve become much more regular at downloading podcasts before I leave the house, for example, and Sarah downloads audiobooks at home as well. We’ve both stripped several social media apps off of our phones (both for data reasons and for reasons related to wanting to reduce our social media exposure) and we’ve both turned off background data for many apps.

As a result, we’re simply gobbling down less data than before by a surprisingly wide measure without really changing much about how we actually use our mobile devices. Thanks to that shift, we’ve actually been able to downgrade our data plan, which provides substantial monthly savings.

Data diets can really pay off.