When it comes to understanding complex topics, people are often urged to keep it simple. But when it comes to paying bills, keeping things simple can be complicated.
After all, automation only works if you always have plenty of money in the bank and you keep track of miscellaneous purchases so you don't overspend. You may also find that a few of your regular expenses can’t be paid with credit cards, such as babysitting or your child’s piano lessons. Some establishments may not accept online billing payments from your bank. It's hard to bank in the 21st century when plenty of people, maybe yourself included, still live in the 20th.
So if you're looking for ways to keep your bills organized, here are a few suggestions from financial experts.
Have a place for your bills. Sure, we all know this, but it can be increasingly challenging these days. With many companies steering consumers toward e-bills, you may find yourself sorting through paper bills and emails to keep track of everything you owe.
You may need to corral your bills into two places: one for your digital bills and one for bills that still come through the mail. You could print out your e-bills or scan your snail-mail bills onto your computer, tablet or smartphone. For some of you, that will work out great; for the less tech-savvy, that will be tiresome.
"People should establish a home financial center," advises Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "It doesn’t have to be a full-blown home office. It can be as simple as an accordion folder. The point is to know where your financial papers are, including bills. Then commit to visiting your financial center each week."
Open all bills. If you're behind on paying bills, it's tempting not to open them, whether they come in the mail or email. Or you may simply put off the unpleasant task of viewing your credit card bill each month. But there could be an unpleasant surprise that you should know about, like a late fee or a change in the billing process – or here's hoping that the envelope holds pleasant news (maybe you overpaid your family physician, and there's a refund check inside).
"Many people avoid opening bills so they won’t get the bad news. But this only makes the situation worse," says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network, a debt relief service.
Cunningham agrees. "A disturbing number of people walk into our offices every day with grocery sacks filled with unopened bills," she says. "That’s definitely not the picture of financial organization.”
Set up regular times to pay bills. It might be once a month, once a week or once a day if you have a lot of bills and can't pay far in advance. But just about every financial expert will tell you to reserve quiet time to pay your bills and stay caught up on your finances.
Paul Stagias, an analyst at Francis Financial, a wealth management firm in New York City, suggests setting aside an hour a week. He also suggests having two folders that you utilize during that hour.
"Keep bills you haven't paid yet in one folder all together. And keep any bills you already have paid, but file them separate in a folder marked 'paid,' under headings so you can access them easily," Stagias says.
Consider using an online service. If you need something more high-tech than an accordion file and are stumped about how to best organize your bills, there are plenty of websites and apps that promise to do just that. They include:
- FileThis.com. Costs range from free to $2 a month and $5 a month, depending on your needs. It's essentially a digital filing cabinet where you can organize bills, financial statements and online documents.
- Finovera.com. This is a free online bill organizer that allows you to link it to your creditors. When you have a bill, it will be downloaded at the website.
- Check.me. This free app is designed to help people stay on top of their bills by monitoring bank and credit card accounts. If you drop to a dangerously low bank balance or a bill is coming due, it'll let you know.
- MoneyStream.com. This service is free and has many of the features you'd expect from an online bill organizer. What possibly sets it apart is its calendar interface that lets customers see where their money went and where it's going.
- PayTrust.Intuit.com. This site will help you eliminate bill clutter from your life. You still have to pay your bills and Paytrust, which is free the first month and then $9.95 every month afterward, but your bills are sent to Paytrust and you can see them online.
Still, no one should get too attached to any online bill paying system. Manila.com, a popular online bill organizer, closed in July. On the other hand, even if a bill paying site ends, another one will probably take its place. And using a website to help you get organized – even if you ultimately decide the site isn't for you – will help you think more critically about how you pay your bills.
[See: 10 Smartphone Apps to Boost Your Budget.]
But however you pay your bills, make your system simple. "A simple filing system ensures you pay every bill on time," Gallegos says. "Choose what works best for you, and then use it religiously."
It is a bit curious, however. The more you think about how to pay your bills and systems for paying your bills, the less you have to think about bill paying – which is probably your ultimate goal.