Ideally, when I want to talk to my daughter, I'd … well, talk to my daughter, using the time-honored interaction of human voices and ears. For better or worse, we now live in an age when calling someone on the phone and actually hearing a live voice answer the call is increasingly unlikely.
Sure, you can always leave a voicemail, but sometimes those linger unanswered for ages. The best way to cut through the clutter: texting.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 73 percent of adult cellphone owners now text. Young adults lead the pack with an astonishing average of 109.5 messages sent or received on a normal day, while older users text about a dozen times a day.
It's easy to see why texting has become more popular: Your messages are waiting whenever you have a chance to take a glance, they're easy to answer and it's faster to skim texts than listen to voicemail. And while smartphones make it easier to send and receive texts, even basic (read: inexpensive) handsets can be used to text.
Let's start with the fundamentals of text messaging, then consider ways to keep spending on it to a minimum, including my all-time favorite: free.
Exchanging Text Messages
Every cellphone can send and receive text messages. The cost depends on your cellphone plan.
Some monthly cellular plans don't include any text messages — which means you pay (usually around 20 cents a pop) for each text sent or received. Other plans include a fixed number of texts per month and charge per text when you go over the limit. Some plans include unlimited texting, although those are usually the most expensive.
How you compose your message depends on the kind of phone you're using. Smartphones with full QWERTY keyboards (push button or touch screen) are the easiest to use for texting.
Basic handsets with only a numeric keypad will do the trick, too. For those, you'll see several letters on each number button, just like you do on a landline phone. You're required to press the key multiple times to enter your intended letter, which can be tedious. To save keystrokes, many of these phones include the "T9" feature, which guesses what word you're typing and finishes it for you. This can be handy, though it takes some getting used to — check your manual.
Text messages are sent directly to the recipient's cellphone number, so keep your contacts list updated frequently and you'll speed up the process.
Two things to keep in mind:
First, you can send more than just written text. Many phones allow you to attach photos, videos and audio files to messages — although larger files might be blocked by your carrier.
Second, if you plan to send text messages internationally, check with your wireless carrier before hitting send. Global texts are far more expensive.
Slash your cellphone bill, text for free
Transmitting text messages costs wireless carriers practically nothing, but you'd never know it from the amount some of them charge. For those on pay-per-text plans, those 20-cent charges can add up quickly. You can shop around for deals, but why not pay nothing? It takes a little more effort, but it'll save you money. Here are a few of my favorite cost-slashing messaging options.
Google Voice: It's hard to beat "something for nothing" on the Internet. With Google Voice, you get a free phone number you can use to make coast-to-coast calls at no charge. Sign in to Google Voice, type in the number you want to dial and Google then routes the call to your own home phone. What does that have to do with texting? Well, your Google Voice number also works for sending and receiving free text messages within the United States, although it restricts your messages to text only (no photos or video).
Owners of Android or Apple phones and tablets can download the Google Voice app and get the same benefits on their mobile devices, using data plan coverage instead of cellphone minutes or racking up text charges.
Textfree: Like Google Voice, Textfree gives iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android users a phone number from which you can send and receive free text messages. You can also access Textfree through a standard Web browser on your computer. Textfree allows picture messaging and provides texting to more than 25 countries, making it a good choice for contacting friends and family abroad.
WhatsApp: If you're going to be texting only with a set group of people, WhatsApp could be the ideal choice, especially if your list includes international correspondents. WhatsApp is available for Apple (99 cents from the iTunes store), Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, Symbian and Windows Phone devices (free for the first year, 99 cents a year thereafter). Be aware that both the sender and recipient of messages must have WhatsApp accounts. But the payoff is worth a little coordination: You can send and receive unlimited text, photo and video messages, and hold chat sessions with a group.