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The limits of automatic bill-paying

In this morning’s New York Times, Ron Lieber reconsiders an earlier rave he wrote for “Your Money” about automating every penny you pay out. He notes that some people are wary of allowing business entities access to their checking accounts, largely out of concern over potentially costly errors. Others, he reports, have run into serious problems: one woman, for example, arranged to pay her phone bill on her credit card. Alas, when the expiration date came and went, no one bothered to tell the phone company, which soon sent a surly letter threatening to cut off her service.

While I’m an enthusiastic proponent of automatic bill paying, I do draw some lines. And I draw a wide, bold black line at charging up utilities on a credit card!

If anything happens that the card is canceled — whether to protect you from identity theft or because you decide to close the account — you are the one who gets to call every creditor and change your payment arrangements, a major nuisance, indeed. The potential hassle factor is just too high.

In fact, credit card statements are the only bills I do not have paid by automatic electronic funds transfer. Why? I just can’t bring myself to trust credit-card issuers. Those folks are not our friends. I want to see each statement and check each charge off against my Quicken or Excel records before forking over any cash.

For a long time, I felt that way about the phone company, too. Not so much because Qwest seemed untrustworthy (though a degree of incompetence presented itself, the company never seemed outright treacherous, the way credit-card lenders do), but because I’ve had people hack into my phone number and run up fraudulent toll calls. Here, too, I wanted to check the statement before sending any money.

I do authorize the utility companies, the city water department, and two insurance companies to bill my checking account directly. I did so because, before I switched my accounts to a credit union, the bank where I did business charged a fee when customers had money automatically transferred from the bank’s end but charged nothing when the creditor itself absorbed money out of the customer’s account. Why, I do not understand.

If I had it to do over again, I would go the other way around: retain control of the amount and date of payment, rather than permitting creditors to directly debit the account. This service is free at the credit union, but I didn’t know that when I made the switch. Now I’m too lazy and too busy to mess with changing a half-dozen payment arrangements.

Undoubtedly other issues present themselves. Identity theft? Seems to me you’re as much at risk of that when you send a check to some boiler room as you are when you pay electronically — possibly more so. Service snafus? They’re everywhere. Overdrafts? You need a system and some self-discipline to be sure enough money resides in your account to pay your bills…just as you do when you pay by check or cash.

Automatic bill-paying has many advantages. As with everything in life, we need to apply some common sense.

1 thought on “The limits of automatic bill-paying”

  1. I have been electronically and automatically paying as many bills as possible including credit cards for years. But, I set up the payment bankside rather than through the company being paid. That way, I see electronic copies of bills a week or two prior to the money being drawn from the account. So far, no issues. My biggest problem is with a few companies that do not use electronic billing – like the City for water and trash. That is the only bill that is sometimes late because I get it in the mail and toss it onto a dozen other pieces of paper that need attention…sometime. As for identity theft, I believe (right or wrong) that the most frequent access for identity theft is from the mail, trash or credit card use in local establishments who may not keep close watch on the card when it is out of the owner’s control.

    ps: Paying for utilities via credit card seems a little nuts to me too! Maybe for airmiles? Nawwww

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