How Does Bill Pay Work?

By Janet Siroto · May 20, 2024 · 11 minute read

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How Does Bill Pay Work?

Online bill pay can automate payments of one-time and recurring bills, allowing you to seamlessly transfer funds from your bank account to a payee. Using technology in this way can not only be convenient, it may reduce the odds that you’ll forget to pay a bill and end up getting hit with a late fee.

If you’re curious to know the answer to, “What is bill pay and how does it work?” and understand how it could simplify your life and possibly save you money, read on.

Key Points

•   Online bill pay automates the payment process, allowing seamless fund transfers from your bank account to payees.

•   It eliminates the need for check writing and can be managed via digital devices.

•   Users can schedule payments in advance, optimizing their time and managing cash flow effectively.

•   Bill pay and autopay are distinct; bill pay involves user-directed payments, while autopay allows automatic withdrawals by creditors.

•   Setting up bill pay involves selecting bills to automate, entering payee information, and scheduling payments.

What Is Online Bill Pay?

Bill pay is a way of paying your bills online and automating your finances. It allows you to use your mobile device, laptop, or tablet to send money from your account to that of another person or business. No check writing required.

You specify the funds and provide details on the recipient, and the amount is automatically taken from your account and sent to the payee.

Yes, you can do this in real time, but you can also determine the “when.” That means you can schedule bills for payment in advance whenever you have time free, which can be a huge life hack.

Bill Pay vs. Autopay

You may be tempted to use the terms bill pay and autopay interchangeably, but they are actually two different processes.

•   With bill pay, you are set up one or more payments; you are establishing when and how much money will be taken out of your bank account and transferred to the payee.

•   With autopay, however, you are authorizing a creditor to take money out of your account (which can make some people feel as if they are sacrificing control) or to use your bank’s bill payment system to do so.

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What Is Online Bill Pay Used For?

When you set up online bill pay, it can be a good opportunity to review your finances and the money you have coming in and going out.

You might also decide to stagger the payment dates on your bills to enhance your cash flow. To help with this, you may be able to change due dates on your bills by contacting your creditor.

Here are some of the ways you might use online bill pay services:

•   Mortgage or rent

•   Utilities

•   Car loan payments

•   Credit card bill

•   Gym memberships

•   Streaming channel and other subscriptions

•   Student loans

•   Charity donations.

How to Set Up Online Bill Pay

While bill pay can help make managing finances simpler, it does require some initial manual set-up. But, once you’ve learned how bill pay works, this automatic feature can make keeping track of and paying bills less cumbersome. Here are some ways to get started:

1. Find a Financial Partner that Offers Bill Pay

While many financial institutions offer digital payment tools, like online bill pay, it’s worth investigating the features that are included at each before opening up an account. Online billing is free with some accounts, while some providers may charge for each transaction — either per bill or on a repeating monthly basis.

2. Determine Which Bills to Automate with Bill Pay

Next, think about which ongoing bills you want to automate.

•   Predictable expenses (or fixed vs. variable expenses) that don’t fluctuate from month to month, such as loan and mortgage payments or the internet bill, are solid candidates for recurring automated payments. You may want to schedule payment for a time each month when you know there’ll be sufficient funds in your account to cover what’s come due. Some service providers may even allow you to change the due date on certain bills.

•   Bills that change every month may be more challenging to automate. For instance, if your credit card bill might be $300 one month and $1,300 the next, it can be hard to be certain you’ll have enough money in your checking account to cover the cost.

3. Gather Together All Bills

Once you figure out which bills to pay automatically, you still might want to gather together all your regular bills in one place. (Organizing your bills can really help you see exactly where your money goes.)

While individual bills are generally due at the same time each month, bills from different businesses or providers will have different due dates. With all the bills in one place, you can be ready to enter the various billing accounts into your bank’s bill pay system.

4. Log into Your Online Financial Account

When you’re ready to make a payment with bill pay or set up recurring payments, sign onto your bank’s website or app and search for the “Pay a Bill” or “Online Bill Pay” function.

5. Add Your Billing Information

Once logged on, you might follow the prompts to add individual billing accounts, indicating for each the funds you wish to pay with.

•   You’ll likely be asked to input the name of the business or service whose payments you’re seeking to automate. You may also be asked for more specific details, such as your individual account number.

•   If you can’t find the business or service provider listed, you want to try spelling out the full name, removing abbreviations.

•   If you still can’t find the payee, it’s possible that you can still utilize online bill pay, but you may need to manually add in the payment details.

•   You’ll need to add your account number so that your payment is properly credited to you.

•   You can also add the amount and frequency of payments, selecting a specific payment date (for one-time payments) or a regular schedule (for repeat bills that get paid on the same date every month).

Some financial institutions place a cap on the amount of money that can be transferred electronically through bill pay. If an automatic payment exceeds that designated transaction limit, users may then need to pay via a physical method, such as a personal or cashier’s check.

6. Take Note of the Billing Schedule

Doing a little homework ahead of time can save a financial headache later on.

While bill pay may ease the burden of remembering when bills are due, it’s still important to stay on top of the days each payment will go out. Here’s why:

•   Knowing this ahead of time can help make sure there’s enough money in the linked accounts to cover bills paid on different days.

•   Otherwise, you may run the risk of a payment being declined (which can incur extra fees or charges) or overdrawing funds (which can incur even more fees and charges).

•   Doing a little homework ahead of time can save a financial headache later on. Check with your financial institution to find out when automated payments will begin (and how long it takes for funds to be transferred from your accounts). In some cases, funds may be drawn several days before a bill is “due” to be paid. This information will help you make sure payments are credited before any late fees can kick in.

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Understand the Cost of Overdue Bills

The Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse survey found that 36% of Americans said they had found it somewhat or very difficult to pay their bills over the previous week. That’s more than one in three consumers.

Many Americans occasionally, rarely, or never pay bills on time.

When bills are not paid on time, you incur late and/or overdraft or NSF fees. These can add up on multiple bills, adding to any cash flow issues you may be experiencing. Curious about the costs? A typical overdraft fee is about $35, and consumers in the US pay $14.5 billion a year in credit card late fees alone, according to the Consumer Financial Protection bureau.

Given the magnitude of this issue, it can make sense to take a closer look at your bills and use bill pay to avoid incurring unnecessary fees.

Here are more details about some of the consequences of not paying bills on time.

Imposing Late Fees

One of the ways companies or service providers enforce on-time payments is by penalizing people for, well, paying late. Whether it’s a credit card, utility bill or simply missing a payment date by a single day, submitting a late payment can result in late fees, higher interest rates, or other charges.

Accruing Interest Charges

On top of late penalties, some providers may also charge interest on the balance owed, essentially creating a double wallop of fees if you’re late paying a bill.

•   In some cases, the interest may be charged starting the day an account becomes overdue. In others, it may accrue going back to the purchase date or transaction day.

•   Depending on the interest rate charged and how frequently that interest compounds, this fee could quickly balloon to more than the initial fee assessed.

Experiencing Service Disruptions

In some cases, a provider may have the right to shut off your service if you pay a bill late. Not only are such disruptions a major interruption to daily life (ahem, no water or electricity or WiFi), but individuals may also have to pay a reinstatement fee once account has been paid just to reactivate the service.

Declining Credit Rating

Payment history on outstanding debts is the single biggest contributing factor at 35% to your FICO® credit score. And payment history reflects whether you have been paying your bills on time. So, things like overdue credit card bills, unpaid mortgage or car payments, and other late payments can erode an individual’s credit score.

Building and/or protecting your credit score can help you get approved for loans and lines of credit. Even if approved, having a lower credit score could mean you’re offered a less favorable APR (annual percentage rate) on funds you borrow or lines of credit, potentially costing you thousands of additional dollars over time.

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The Pros and Cons of Bill Pay

Now, a closer look at the benefits to automatic bill pay and the potential disadvantages:

Bill Pay Benefits

•   It’s secure. Financial institutions typically use state-of-the-art protocols to protect your account, and there’s no worry about a check getting lost or stolen.

•   Paperless transactions means there are fewer documents to manage and organize.

•   The automatic nature of bill pay means you don’t have to remember to pay bills or set up elaborate systems of alerts. (That’s also a benefit of automating your savings as well.)

•   A corollary to the above point is that bill pay can help you avoid missing payments or making them late and paying related fees.

Bill Pay Disadvantages

•   There’s the possibility that you enter incorrect details and the wrong amount gets transferred or the funds get sent to the wrong person.

•   In any form of digital financial transaction, there is a very small chance of fraud or hacking.

•   If you don’t keep very careful tabs on your money, you could risk overdraft. Say you have unusually high expenses one month; your bank balance might be lower than needed to cover your automated bill payments. This could lead to fees and headaches.

•   Payment processing times can vary. Check with your bank to make sure you understand the timelines involved with bill pay so you don’t wind up with late charges.

•   You may need extra organization to manage, say, quarterly or other irregularly occurring bills. If you pay different bills from separate accounts, paying bills can become even more tangled.

Recommended: When All Your Money Goes to Bills

The Takeaway

Bill paying is a fact of life, but there are tools that can make it quicker and more convenient. Signing up for automated online bill pay can put you in control. It can ensure that outstanding bills get paid on time or when you have more money in your accounts, reducing the likelihood of late-payment or overdraft fees. It can be a smart move to see what your bank offers in terms of this service and whether it can simplify your financial life.

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How long does bill pay take to send money?

Check with your bank about typical processing times. This may range from a couple to several days. Knowing the typical timing can help you make sure to set up payments to arrive on time..

Is bill pay the same as a check?

Online bill pay is an electronic process that moves funds from one account to another. You do not have to write a paper check, nor does the payee receive one.

Can I use bill pay to pay another person?

While many people may think of bill pay as being used to send funds to, say, a utility or other company, you can often use bill pay to send funds to an individual (say, your landscaper or babysitter).

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