Back in the analog days before personal computers, the internet and smartphones, paying monthly bills was an event! Bills arrived in the mail and were collected in a specific location and saved for that special day each month when they were paid. The bills were reviewed to make sure all expected items had arrived and each check was written out with a corresponding entry added to the (paper) check register. It was a manual exercise requiring good organization, basic math skills and the concentration to ensure the accounting was properly logged. Mailing out the checks and tracking them in the register wasn’t the end of the process – it was imperative to scrutinize the monthly bank statement and balance the checkbook to ensure that there were no math errors, the checks hadn’t gotten lost in the mail, they were actually cashed by the creditor and correctly credited to the account. Because there was always a lag between the bills coming due and the bank statement arriving, sometimes it was difficult to avoid unpleasantness such as the power or telephone company threatening to turn off service due to a clerical error or post office delay.
Since that time, things have changed dramatically. First was the introduction of financial software that could help with monthly budgeting and bill-paying. Computerization increased organization and cut down math errors, making it easier to keep control of monthly obligations. Today’s consumer has a wealth of tools at their disposal to pay bills, track accounts and keep their personal finances organized. Instead of a shoebox full of paper and a checkbook, bills can be paid with a computer or smartphone connected to the internet. Payments made using either a checking account or credit card can be monitored almost in real-time. Even the role of the post office has diminished considerably because of changes in the bill-paying process. Many people utilize automatic bill payment options that are available directly from vendors such as the phone company or insurance company, as well as from many banks. Consumers may still have a checkbook in their possession, but most of the time it gathers dust on a shelf or in a drawer while bills are paid in a variety of other ways.
Automatic bill payments are the most convenient of all, with options to pay each vendor directly from a bank account or credit card. Auto-pay is great for convenience and flexibility, but the responsibility still falls to each consumer to ensure the process works as expected and to maintain control of their finances. What are some things to be aware of with auto-bill pay and what are some tips for keeping control of your budget while still taking advantage of the automation available?
- Choose the payment method that works for you: Many people find it more convenient to set up their auto-pay on a credit card instead of having the money deducted instantly from their checking accounts. That way, monthly bills appear together in 1 place, and there is less worry about cash flow during the month. And with credit card accounts accessible online, the balance can be monitored as needed. Many credit cards can offer consumer benefits such as frequent flyer miles, free merchandise and other perks. Using a credit card as the payment method is great for organization, but be careful!! Accruing charges on a credit card makes it easy to exceed your budget and get into trouble at the end of the month. Only use this method if you are prepared to pay off the balance on your credit card each month to avoid paying high finance charges on your fixed monthly expenses. If you’re on a very tight budget or have trouble limiting credit card spending, paying bills directly from your checking account is a better solution.
- Be prepared for changes: When using a credit card to pay most monthly bills, if your credit card is stolen or hacked, or when it expires and a new card is issued, be aware that any auto-payments you set up using that card will no longer process. Keep a list of accounts that use auto-pay, including which credit card is used as the payment method for each account. This way, you can quickly update them all when a new credit card is received. If you’re tempted to just check your most recent statement instead of keeping a list, remember – some bills come monthly, others are quarterly and still others are annual so they won’t all appear on your most recent statement. Keeping a list is most efficient way to easily update all applicable accounts.
- Stay involved in the process: Many banks help in the process and provide alerts when an expected bill arrives or does not arrive when scheduled – bill payment is a great feature of online banking and can help you stay on top of your obligations! Make time to review the bills each month to make sure there aren’t any unforeseen or erroneous charges; especially if you are on a tight budget and paying directly from your bank account. Unanticipated charges that are automatically deducted from your account can cause unexpected drops in your bank balance.
- Be smart when it comes to cash management: If possible, don’t set up auto-pay on bills that can vary greatly from month to month, such as credit card bills. And always avoid paying off the balance of one credit card by adding it to the balance of another.
- Keep your credit rating in good standing: Due dates for items such as credit cards, health insurance, mortgage and auto payments are typically due on the same day each month, making it easy to ensure that auto-pay bills arrive on time. However, the due date on some bills may vary. Be sure the payment date that you set up for each bill allows sufficient time for the creditor to process the payment in order to avoid late charges. Similarly, if using your bank’s bill-paying service, for some vendors there is a lag between the date paid and the date received – make sure you allow sufficient time to stave off late fees and avoid bad credit.
The most important concept to remember is that even though paying bills has become extremely convenient and paper cuts are much less common these days in the bill-paying process, you are still ultimately responsible for your finances, your bills and your credit rating. Monitor closely, take advantage of the online tools available from your bank and your creditors to help you keep track of your finances and remember to dust off that checkbook once in a while! Regardless of the method you choose for paying bills, it is highly recommended that you keep a current register of all checks and debits, making a deduction for each item immediately (as soon as you have issued or authorized an item for payment), including any associated fees. This will allow you to have an accurate, up-to-the-minute checking account balance from which to work. This will also help prevent incidences of insufficient funds and their associated fees. Accurate and timely account records never go out of style!