This day and age is evolving into a largely digital era, and included in that evolution is finances. Online bill pay is an electronic payment service that allows you to set up secure accounts on the Internet to make one-time or recurring bill payments. Many love this innovative technology for its simplicity and economy, and a few shun it for big businesses’ hidden fees, the possibility of making mistakes and the risk of scams, insecurity and viruses. Read on to see for yourself if online bill pay is right for you.
The first thing a potential online bill payer needs to do is to figure out his or her needs. Do all of your billers accept electronic payments? If not, you will need a bill pay site that will accommodate that by issuing them paper checks. If that is the case, you also need to know to schedule that bill to be paid a little earlier to account for the time your bill pay company needs to send that live check out via the mail (usually about five days).
Furthermore, are your bill amounts the same every month? If not, a scheduled — not automatic — payment through your financial institution might be your best bet; that way, you have access handily to your checking and/or savings account information for variable amounts so as to avoid overdrafts.
There are many free online bill pay websites available to consumers; there are also many financial institutions that offer it via their websites, as well. Be sure to read all disclaimers and fine print to alleviate the fear of hidden fees. It may be a good idea to choose your next financial institution based in part on if they do offer free online bill pay, if that is what strikes you.
Similarly, you can put the control into the hands of the lenders and have the billers debit your account by signing up on the creditor’s own site. Whichever way you choose, automatic, scheduled payments help avoid late fees; they also have the potential to be a very well-organized way to manage your bills.
Dan Kadlec, a personal finance journalist for TIME Magazine, recommends doing all of your banking online for its personal and environmental efficiency.
“Stamps, envelopes and physical checks are an obsolete expense. You’ll save time, too,” Kadlec said. “But best of all, your bank will automatically keep track of what you spend and where you spend it for easy review, which makes budgeting a lot simpler.”
Reducing paper waste by banking and paying bills online does more than save the trees; it helps save the planet by reducing the fuel used by the vehicles that transport the paper statements, bills and checks. Javelin Strategy & Research found that if every U.S. home viewed and paid its bills online, the switch would cut solid waste by 1.6 billion tons a year and curb greenhouse-gas emissions by 2.1 million tons a year.
Some things to look out for
The main concern for anyone doing absolutely anything online these days is security. But it doesn’t have to be distressing. Make sure your computer has the latest virus protection, never access your account from a public wi-fi system or on any sort of shared device and change your passwords regularly. Also, be on the lookout for messages that claim to be from your financial institution or bill pay company; they could be phishing scams from con artists trying to gain access to your account information. Don’t give out any personal or account information without confirming the source first. As mentioned before, monitor your accounts and statements and watch out for any transactions that you didn’t authorize.
Additionally, one must be careful of typos while paying bills online. You wouldn’t want to accidentally pay $36,000 for a $360 bill, right? Misplaced decimals are small, but frightening. Also alarming is the possibility of forgetting to hit the “Submit Payment” button at all. About 0.18 percent of online bill payments are challenged for mistakes every year (not including errors consumers catch and fix on their own), which translates to millions of snafus when taking into account the billions of payments submitted online each year.
Most of the time, financial institutions or companies will help sort out any problems, but Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president at the American Bankers Association, confirmed that it is much more efficient to just do it correctly the first time.
“It is very easy in this electronic world to get caught up and move quickly, hit the send button before we mean to. We all need to take time, pause — and make sure the transaction is accurate,” Feddis said. Feddis recommends signing up for the bill pay site’s e-mail alert system, and that of your financer, as well, to be notified when a payment or change in your account has been made. This will help catch any mistakes or fraudulent behavior.
Weighing the pros and cons
In short, the positive qualities of online bill pay are abundant, but the practice is not without its difficulties. There are a lot of aspects to consider, such as the convenience factor based on your specific circumstances. It can be a very quick and efficient way to disseminate money because it can be done all in one setting, and it also saves the environment in more ways than one.
On the other hand, Internet security is always a concern for any interaction done online, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life, so vigilance and awareness are a huge necessity in managing finances online. The responsibility of weighing these options and making an informed decision is that of each consumer individually.
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