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Are Automatic Payments All They're Cracked Up To Be?

A few weeks ago, I paid a sky-high electric bill.

After some investigation, I saw the problem: the electric company charged a $200 deposit fee for starting electric service at our new house.

The deposit was supposed to be waived, since we had a good payment history with the electric company. Only here it was, on our bill. And since we're on autopay, the electric company had already collected payment.

After calling and sorting out the matter, the electric company said they'd give us a credit on our next bill.

That wasn't a solution I exactly loved, since it meant that our bills would be higher than usual that month. Maybe I should've fought them on that, but I didn't. Also, we could cover the overcharge easily enough, so I figured, what's the difference?

But it did make me think about whether automatic payments are really such a great idea.

Autopay doesn't mean autopilot

Autopay is great because it's convenient, requiring no action on our part to avoid late payment fees. There's nothing to mail and no logins or passwords to remember. I never have to wonder, “Did I remember to pay the electric bill?”

“Autopay is also an especially appealing feature for young adults just starting out in the real world because it makes it very easy to pay the bills,” says Robert Long, managing editor for Kiplinger.com. “But it can be a trap.”

For instance, bills that have a variable rate, like your electric bill, can be especially tricky to track if you schedule automatic payments to cover them. “My bill might be $50 at one time of the year or as high as $200 other times of the year, depending on how much I'm using the heat or AC,” says Long.

And if a couple of bills are higher than anticipated, you could end up with a low bank balance, or even overdraft charges.

“Giving debtors access to your banking account can open you up to accidental overcharges, whether it's a legitimate bill that's just higher than you expected or it's an accidental billing error where you're being charged a little or a lot more that you should be,” says Long.

For instance, you might have a recurring annual contract, like a gym membership, that you didn't want to renew but forgot to cancel. Or maybe you're disputing a bill, but in the meantime the company is still charging you and taking the money out of your account.

“Autopay can be too automatic,” says Long. “It puts control into the hands of the debtor because they can go into your account. Maybe one time out of 100, there's an accidental overcharge or you're getting scammed, but either way it takes that control out of your hands.”

It's easy to set it and forget it

So why is a service that's supposed to make life easier so problematic?

For one thing, many of us treat bills on autopay like a Ron Popeil rotisserie oven - we set them and forget them.

For instance, I like not worrying about my electric bill. But I admit that I'm not disciplined about checking the bill every month. And would I notice if the overcharge hadn't been so large? Probably not. But with no real action required on my part to pay the bill, when life gets hectic, I don't always review the charges like I should.

Two solutions to autopay problems

As with most things in life, you have to do what works for you, and autopay is no different. As Kiplinger writers Amanda Lilly and Stacy Rapacon discussed in a recent article, there are pros and cons to automatic payments, and sometimes what works for you changes as your situation changes.

So let's talk about a couple of options.

Option #1: If you hate the idea of letting a creditor have access to your money, then skip autopay altogether. You can still enjoy many of the conveniences of autopay with online bill payment.

“Personally, I recommend going with online bill payment, but not autopay,” says Long. “Autopay puts control in hands of debtors, but with online bill pay, you're in control.”

Option #2: If you're concerned about avoiding late fees, use autopay, but use it wisely.

Here are a few ways to use autopay carefully:

  1. Pay with a credit card first. If, and only if, you use credit cards and pay your balance off every month, consider autopaying with a credit card when possible. It gives you extra time to dispute charges and keeps your cash safe in the meantime.

  2. Only autopay set charges and minimum payments. If you're worried about too many higher-than-expected variable bills socking it to your balance, don't put those bills on autopay. Just set up automatic payments for the non-variable bills like Netflix. It's also pretty low-risk to set up autopay for minimum payments, such as on credit cards, to avoid accidental late fees.

  3. Mark electronic bills as high priority. Flag them, filter them, or tag them - just have a system to mark your electronic bills as high priority. It's easy to let bills get piled under other emails, which means you'll forget to review them.

  4. Opt for payment notifications. When you set up autopay for a bill, many times you'll have the option to be notified of the bill via text or email before the payment goes through. So opt in! It's just one extra assurance that you'll know what you're about to pay.

  5. Keep an eye on your bank account. There are a few things you can do to protect your bank account. One, double-check the automatic payments on your bank statement every month to make sure they're for the right amounts. Two, ”make sure you've got enough cushion in your account so you won't get hit with overdraft fees,” says Long. This is especially important if you have variable bills on autopay. And three, sign up for balance notifications to make sure you don't overdraw. “Set up automatic alerts from your bank or a site like Mint to get an alert when your account dips below a certain level,” says Long.

For some people, automatic bill pay causes more stress. For others, it gives peace of mind. Personally, I'm liking the idea of taking my variable-rate bills off autopay. That way I won't find out that I've been overcharged after the fact. I'll just pay online each month, which always prompts me to review the bill.

So readers, weigh in! Do you pay your bills manually, automatically, or on a case-by-case basis? What tips or cautions can you add?

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