4 times automatic bill payments can cause problems


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It can be easy to forget important things: What time is that meeting? Where’s my phone? Did I pay my credit card bill yet?

While all of those examples are significant, forgetting to pay your bills can be the one with considerable financial ramifications.

According to a recent Census Bureau Household Pulse survey, 36% Americans say they have trouble paying all of their bills on time. Granted, some of that may be due to living paycheck to paycheck, but organization is likely also part of the problem.

Signing up for automatic bill payment can be one path to getting bills paid by the due date, avoiding late fees, and protecting your credit. Here, you’ll learn what automatic bill payment is, how it works, how to set it up, plus the pros and cons of this option.

What Is Automatic Bill Payment?

So exactly what is automatic bill payment exactly? Autopaying a bill transfers money to the person you owe on the due date from a connected bank account — as long as there is enough money available to cover the bill, of course. This can usually be facilitated by the company you have an account with or by your bank.

After the initial set up, automatic bill payment can help pay recurring bills with minimum effort. Simply put, automatic bill payments, once they are in place, allow someone to transfer money from their own account to a creditor, like for a credit card company or service provider, like for a utility bill, without needing to actually initiate a payment every time. In other words, payments can happen automatically, without any effort on your part, such as writing and mailing a check.

Advantages of Automatic Bill Payment

Automatic bill payment has a number of benefits to consider.

It’s Convenient

Automatic bill payment is an easy way to cross off one more “to do” from the list. First, it’s simply more convenient for a lot of people. Instead of remembering specific bill due dates and having to log in to different websites or sending paper checks through the mail, automating personal finances simplifies the experience.

Once payments are set up, some people can adopt a “set it and forget it” mentality, meaning they don’t have to worry about due dates. While it’s still important to be aware of when money will be leaving the bank, sometimes the reduced stress of not worrying about due dates every month is worth it.

Automatic Bill Pay Is Secure

Automatic bill payment is also secure. According to Experian, online payments can be safer than traditional paper checks and statements because they are digitized and encrypted. Avoiding those physical bills and mailing in checks can help reduce exposure to fraud.

Plus, a digital transaction can be much easier to track in real-time and make sure the correct amount for each bill went to the right place, rather than waiting weeks to see if the company cashes a check.

Putting bills on autopay can help avoid the worry about whether a bill got paid, of course, but it could even give finances an eco-friendly boost and reduce the number of paper bills mailed out.

Impacting Your Credit Score

Here’s another benefit of automatic bill payment: Not only can it help you avoid late fees in the short term, it could also help protect your credit score. In fact, payment history affects 35% of someone’s FICO® credit score. (FICO reports that negative marks on credit history can fade over time with consistent on-time payments.) Autopay can help you avoid those late payments.

Saving Money with Automatic Bill Pay

One big advantage of automatic bill payments: Doing so can help you avoid late fees that could be incurred by failing to pay on time or missing a payment. Those fees can add up quickly.

Plus, some creditors, such as federal student loan servicers, offer a discount for setting up automatic payments. In some cases, this is an interest rate reduction, which could help reduce the total amount of debt paid overtime.

Disadvantages of Automatic Bill Payment

Now that you know the benefits of automatic bill payments, consider the potential downsides.

Overdraft Fees

One major downside to putting bills on autopay is the fact that, well, the payments will be automatic. If there is not enough money in the connected bank account to cover the cost of the bill, there is a risk of overdraft and NSF fees from your financial institution.

If there is not enough money to cover the bill, there is a risk of overdraft fees.

Some payment amounts change month to month, such as utility bills. Without checking ahead of time how much the bill will be, it’s possible for the utility company to simply withdraw what is owed, causing the account to be overdrawn. Overdraft fees depend on the bank, but the average is around $35, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Forgetting about automatic withdrawals from financial accounts could lead to overspending, pushing account balances lower than the amount needed to cover those pre-set bill payments.

One possible solution to such cash flow issues: Spread out bill payment dates throughout the month, rather than having them all grouped together. Bills might be scheduled for the beginning or the end of the month, but it’s simple to change the date of automatic payments, with enough notice. You can contact the payee about moving a bill due date and then double-check when the change will go into effect to avoid any late payments.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a helpful worksheet to help visualize which weeks every month are the most hard-hit.

Potential Late Fees

In addition to your financial institution charging you for an overdraft, if an automatic payment doesn’t go through, the payee (the company you were trying to send funds to) may also assess a late fee.

When these fees add up, especially on an interest-charging account, you can wind up having your debt increase.

Forgotten Subscriptions Can Be Costly

Another disadvantage of automatic bill pay is that it reduces your control over what money is going out at certain times. You might wind up with more money flowing out of your account than you realize.

For instance, you might sign up for a one-week free trial of a streaming service with every intention of canceling it after you binge-watch a series. But then you forget and autopay kicks in, which could lead to overdrafting your account over time.

Another scenario: You might move from one home to another and be so busy that you forget to cancel an automatic payment related to your former home or neighborhood. Perhaps you had signed up for one of those “all you can drink” monthly coffee deals at a cafe around the corner from your old place. Review your monthly statements to be sure you catch unwanted charges.

Vendors May Overcharge or Make Mistakes

Another downside of automatic bill payments is that a payee could overcharge you or charge you twice, and you might not be aware of the problem until you review your account or overdraft it. For this reason, it’s wise to check your bank account regularly and scan automatic bill payment transactions to be sure everything looks in good shape.

Whatever the case, whether paying bills manually or using automatic withdrawals, it’s important to still be intentional about making and keeping a budget.

How to Set Up Automatic Bill Payment

Here are the step-by-steps to setting up automatic bill payment for, say, a credit card by selecting the service offered by your card provider.

  1. Log into your credit card account online or in the app.
  2. Select the “recurring payment” or “autopay” option.
  3. Choose how much you want to pay. You may be given such options as minimum payment, a specific amount that you designate, or the total amount of your bill.
  4. You’ll then connect your credit card account to your bank account for payment.
  5. This typically involves adding your account number and routing number.
  6. You will need to approve the autopay set-up, often by agreeing to terms and conditions.

Another option is to set up automatic bill pay directly with a financial institution. One advantage of this is that you don’t need to share your account information with the payee, which can make some people feel more secure about their financial accounts.

  1. Log into your bank account online or in its app.
  2. Find the link for automatic recurring payments; it is often labeled “Bill pay,” “Pay bills,” or something similar.
  3. Then add a payee and follow the prompts to set up a recurring or future payment. Have a recent bill on hand, since the bank will need information like the payee’s bank account numbers, addresses, due dates, and other important information.

Example of Automatic Bill Payment

Here’s an example of how automatic bill payment might work. Say you sign up for a gym membership on a monthly basis at $65 per month. However, the gym will lower that to $60 a month if you sign up for autopay on their site and save them the trouble of billing you.

If you take advantage of this offer, you would likely go to their website or app, log in, and head to your account details, and find the payment or billing section. There, you would opt into autopay and share your banking details or your credit card details (paying by debit card usually isn’t recommended; you have less protection if there’s a problem). You may be informed of what date funds will be deducted or you might be able to select a date.

You should be all set to have your gym membership payments automatically paid every month. It’s a good idea to verify this when you check your bank account. And, of course, if you decide to end your membership, be sure to cancel the automatic payment.

The Takeaway

Automatic bill payments can be a major convenience as you manage your personal finances. However, like most things in life, there are pros and cons. You can gain convenience and the ability to avoid late charges, but you also have less control over your money. By educating yourself about how this process works, you can decide whether it’s right for you, and, if so, for which payments.

This article originally appeared on SoFi.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

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