When it comes time to cut back on expenses, the hardest part can be figuring out what is really necessary. Over the past decade, cell phones have gone from a luxury to an essential. Faced with a budget crisis in, say, 1998, it might have been possible to temporarily cut out the cell phone. Today, it is the primary communication medium for many Americans. So what can you do to cut your cell phone costs, but still keep service?

Prepaid wireless plans can provide various solutions to cellular budget problems. Whether you're downgrading from an expensive, all-inclusive plan to something more affordable, or you're going for the bare minimum, you can find a deal with one of our featured pay as you go cell phone providers.

Under $200 per year

Finding cellular service at under $200 per year is not easy. It means restrictions on the amount you can call, and texting is pretty much out the window. Still, there are some decent plans out there. The key is finding the maximum number of minutes for your dollar.

Net10 and Boost Mobile offer 10 cents per minute, so for $200 per year you can get 2,000 minutes. T-Mobile prepaid has Gold Rewards, so if you buy the $100 card you get the 10 cents per minute rate. That works out the same as the above three. Red Pocket Mobile offers a similar plan.

Page Plus provides the cheapest rate, 8 cents per minute. This comes on the $50 card, so buying four of those for $200 would get you 2,500 minutes. The cards expire in 120 days, so you'd need to buy at least three for the year's service.

Bonus: For $205 you can purchase the Tracfone one year + double minutes card, plus another 450-minute card. That will give you 1,700 minutes for the year.

$20 per month, $240 per year

Given the rates contract providers offer, $20 per month isn't bad at all. Let's see what it can get you.

The $20 per month plan from Consumer Cellular has an 8 cents per minute rate, so you get 250 minutes per month for your $20.

Texting included

Some people just aren't ready to give up text messaging. I don't blame them. Here are some plans that include monthly text message allotments.

The Straight Talk $30 monthly plan includes 1,000 minutes and 1,000 messages. That's should satiate even heavy texters.
For unlimited texting, check out kajeet, which for $20 per month offers 150 anytime minutes and unlimited text messaging.

$30 per month, $360 per year

Usually, as you get into higher price points, you'll see lower per-minute rates. Here are four plans that give you more minutes than lower-tier plans.

Consumer Cellular offers the best deal here, 500 minutes. That's 6 cents per minute.

High usage

We venture slightly outside of the budget realm to finish with unlimited plans. Sometimes people just need a reasonable price for their heavy usage habits. Here are a few cheap unlimited plans.

Cricket and MetroPCS offer $40 unlimited plans that include voice and text. Cricket and Metro also have $45 monthly unlimited plans that include Web.

Boost Mobile has its infamous $50 monthly unlimited plan, which covers minutes, messages, and data.

Finally, AT&T offers unlimited voice and text for $60 per month. It's more expensive, but has better nationwide coverage than the others listed.