Making Bill Paying Easier

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

For a variety of reasons, some older adults need help when it comes to the task of paying their bills.

People in the “sandwich generation” caring for their teenaged children and elderly parents may want to take one more chore off their list.

Snowbirding or other travel can mean mail goes to different addresses at different points of the year. People who struggle with vision problems, manual dexterity or cognition find that filling out paper checks accurately can be challenging.

Some newly widowed people have never handled finances before and feel bewildered facing this new challenge. Nearly all companies accept automated billing. Many banks provide means to pay bills directly without paper checks after signing up for online banking.

One of the impediments to choosing autopayments is fear of overdrawing an account “if you don’t keep accurate records of your balance,” said Cynthia Scott, president of OMC Financial in Dewitt. “Bills can increase without your knowledge.”

A computer or clerical error from the billing company can clean out an account. However, banks work with clients to restore overdraft penalties in these cases. Variable bills can also cause unexpected shortages, such as a utility bill, unless account holders keep a close watch on the funds.

“It becomes an automatic process, which you don’t monitor,” Scott said. “You should. It encourages complacency and I think you lose accountability for your own expenses. It’s not losing control, but awareness of what your bills are and what you’re paying out.”

For some people, writing paper checks feels more comfortable because of the familiarity of the ritual and because it seems like the process is entirely within their control. However, that is not entirely true. Writing down the wrong address, forgetting to apply a stamp, unclear handwriting, checks lost or delayed in the mail or the wrong account number may derail even this tried-and-true method of bill paying.

Once established, autopayment places the process within the control of technology. However, it is not without proper oversight. Online banking allows customers to look at their accounts anytime to ensure the balance is sufficient and the bills have been paid. Most banks provide automatic bill paying and automatic transfer services to ensure seamless bill payments. A notification email or text alerts customers that bills have been paid.

Autopay offers numerous practical advantages.

“If you’re traveling, you don’t have to worry about it,” Scott said. “If you are ill and can’t take care of your own finances, the bills are paid. There are also weather disruptions. Or what if a family member needs your assistance and you’re constantly going over to take care of them? Your own bills are attended to. That’s one less thing to do.”

In addition to automating payments, digitizing statements will make bill paying even easier, especially for snowbirds.

That way, “their bills are not being mailed to their house and then subject to forwarding issues or just being left in the owner’s mailbox where theft of the info is possible,” said Randy L. Zeigler, certified financial planner and private wealth adviser with Ameriprise Financial in Oswego. “They can then check their email while in Florida and review bills sent to them and being paid, while not having a mailbox issue.”

Paper bills are easily mislaid. If reading fine print becomes problematic, electronic bills may be easily enlarged by pressing Ctrl while scrolling the mouse wheel up or other means of zooming.

Zeigler suggested using a credit card for automatic bill payments, as they’re not susceptible to overdraw problems like a bank account and so payers are “protected by fraud provisions covering credit cards and so access to checking accounts is limited to only highly secure vendors,” Zeigler said. “It is better to not give too many vendors access to one’s checking account as these balances are not as securely protected from theft and fraud.”

Setting up autopay can help people stay more independent later in life. If issues such as poor vision, cognition or fine motor control make it difficult to write checks to pay bills, having autopay already in place “can make a way of making sure their needs are met while remaining relatively independent,” said Nina Kohn, a David M. Levy professor of law and faculty director of Online Education at Syracuse University College of Law.

People with limited means may not prefer autopay because they need to first make sure they have the money in the account to cover variable bills. Kohn stressed that of all bills to consider for autopay, rent or mortgage, critical utilities, auto insurance and long-term care policies are the most important because of the fallout if they’re late.

Kohn said that for those uncomfortable with autopayment, enlisting a trusted third party to write out checks or hiring a bill paying service may be helpful.

She added, autopayment “can be a valuable convenience to help people manage in an increasingly complex world. Just make sure it’s not ‘do it once and forget it.’ You still need to monitor it.”