Articles by Reesa Marchetti

Reesa Marchetti, Editor, Writer, Web DeveloperCOol MOther's Techno Talk [A Classic!]
©1998 Reesa Marchetti

The check's not in the mail

Update: CheckFree has switched to Quicken BillPay and no longer operates as CheckFree. But hey, it still works great and I'm still using it.)

It will probably never be fun for most of us, but paying bills is a little easier, now that there's a way to eliminate the writing, signing and mailing of checks every month. Systems such as the ones offered by CheckFree and many local banks let anyone with a computer and modem, or even just a telephone, do it all electronically. This saves not only time and paperwork, but also the cost of postage — and a lot of trees, the check-writing service providers say.

Depending on the number of checks you write every month, you're likely to either break even or save a buck or two on the amount you would usually pay for stamps. If you use the online option, these services add the advantage of letting you tie in with your own financial software to completely balance your accounts by computer.

To get started, you download or send away for the software, or dial an 800 number to initiate a phone account. You will be asked to mail or fax the company a voided check with your bank's routing information on it. If you have fax capabilities, you can do all this without leaving home.

Electronic check services work by sending a credit to the bank of your payee, which shows up as a debit — like an ATM transaction — on your checking account statement. If the receiving bank can't handle electronic transfers, most of these services will mail a check to the payee for you.

The companies usually suggest that you schedule each transaction electronically at least four days before the payment is due. You can pre-arrange for regular monthly payments such as mortgages to be sent on time without additional scheduling.

Rates for the services vary according to the options you want, but CheckFree's basic monthly service, which is typical of these companies, is $9.95 for your first 20 payments. That's not much more than 20 stamps, and a lot less trouble than buying postage, sticking it on and mailing the letters.

You can schedule regularly occurring payments such as rent to be sent automatically at monthly intervals. And once you pay a bill, you won't have to type in the name of that  payee again: the program remembers and fills in the name after you type the first few letters.

Drawbacks include the charging of a monthly service fee whether you use the service or not, and the fact that some payments, such as federal taxes, can't be made this way. Electronic services also, by their nature, eliminate the extra time you get from "float." This is what happens when you write a check before you have the funds in your account because you know it won't be cashed right away. Electronic transfers have very little lag time, so instead of floating, you'll likely end up with bounced checks.

And you won't be able to completely throw away your check book. For paying the babysitter or for other local services, you'll probably want to write a paper check —  unless they don't mind waiting a few days for the check to arrive in the mail.

Because no personal information or account numbers are transmitted during a check transfer transaction, officials say that electronic check-writing services are safer than credit card transactions over the phone.

So let's have some fun. Pay your bills online and surf at the same time!