How Does Bill Pay Work?

By Janet Siroto · August 12, 2023 · 11 minute read

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How Does Bill Pay Work?

Online bill pay can be a major convenience: It can allow you to schedule payments to transfer money from your bank account to your creditors. Using this technology can also be a money-saving move. It can lower the odds of your forgetting to pay a bill or winding up with late payment charges.

To be honest, paying bills likely isn’t anyone’s favorite way to spend free time. Automating the process may let you focus your energies elsewhere without needing to worry about how much money is due when and where.

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

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.

Using Bill Pay to Organize Your Bills

When you set up 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 bill pay:

•   Mortgage or rent

•   Utilities

•   Car loan payments

•   Credit card bill

•   Gym memberships

•   Streaming channel and other subscriptions

•   Student loans

•   Charity donations

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Setting 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. Finding a Financial Partner that Offers Bill Pay

While many financial institutions offer digital payment tools, like 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.

Recommended: When All Your Money Goes to Bills

2. Determining which Bills to Autopay

Utility bills, loan payments, credit card bills — you can pay just about any bill using bill pay. One benefit of centralizing bill payments is that, whether it’s a one-off charge payment or recurring bill, the user can rest assured that the bill will get paid on time — assuming bill pay has been set up correctly and there are sufficient funds in the linked account.

To streamline bill payments even further, it may be helpful to think about which ongoing bills you want to automate on a revolving basis through bill pay. Every month, bill payment could go out automatically, on a schedule determined by you, to the businesses or service providers where the money is due.

Predictable 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. After all, it can be easier to budget for an expense that won’t go up and down from month to month. For bills that always cost the same, 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.

3. Gathering Together All Bills

Once a person has figured out which bills to pay automatically, they still might want to gather together all their 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 then enter the various billing accounts into your money management provider’s bill pay system. It could be useful to research each bill ahead of time, determining whether they’re delivered by snail mail, paperless emails, or both.

4. Logging on to Personal Finances

As with other personal finances, bill pay is generally managed through a financial institution’s website or mobile app. A person interested in accessing bill pay could simply sign on to their secure account and search for the “Pay a Bill” or “Online Bill Pay” function.

5. Inputting 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 bill pay, but you may need to manually add in the payment details.

Having printed or saved digital copies of previous bills handy can be helpful here. (One other potential option is to set up automated payments, linked to your money accounts, directly through the provider — for instance, the water department of the city where you live).

When paying electronically, 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. Taking Note of the Billing Schedule

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. 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. Naturally, paying with a physical check can take longer—as the recipient will need to deposit and cash the payment.

Knowing when your payments are processed also means that if any changes arise—such as you not needing to pay a bill one month or wanting to change the payment amount—you’ll know when the date by which you need to make modifications.

7. Adding New Bills as Needed

From time to time, you may sign up for a new service that comes with a recurring bill. Or, perhaps you have to make a one-off payment. It’s good to add these bills to the automated queue, when they’re top of mind. Some people like to periodically review ongoing automated payments to ensure they stay up to date. When moving, it may even be necessary to switch or set up a new account—which could necessitate altering or updating bill pay.

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Keeping Track of Outstanding Bills and Extra Fees

One research report (spanning 2,000 individuals) indicates that 28% of Americans report difficulty in paying their bills on time. In this group, 52% of those earning less than $25,000 or less noted difficulty with paying bills, while only 11% of those earning $125,000 or higher reported the same bill-paying challenges.

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 $12 billion a year in credit card late fees alone.

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.

Understanding the Cost of Overdue Bills

As mentioned above, you probably realize there are benefits to automatic bill pay, including avoiding overdue accounts.

Here are some 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.

Put another way, not paying right now can cost individuals more in the long run. It’s worth noting that these fees or penalties can be higher if a person has a previous history of late or unpaid bills.

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, ahem) individuals may also have to pay a reinstatement fee once account has been paid—just to reactivate the service, such as electricity, natural gas, or the internet.

Declining Credit Rating

Think no one other than the service provider will notice a missed bill payment? Not so, in many cases. Payment history on outstanding debts makes up 35% of a FICO credit score. So, things like, overdue credit card bills, unpaid mortgage or car payments, and other late payments can erode an individual’s credit score.

It’s worth recalling that lenders and landlords can rely in part on credit scores when evaluating the risk of doing business with someone. So, dings to a credit score—things like late payments—can impact the likelihood of being approved for a loan or a lease. (Generally speaking, lenders consider a score below 580 a sign that the borrower is at a higher risk of not paying back the money loaned).

Even if approved, having a lower credit score could increase the rate of interest charged on a loan or credit card, potentially costing the borrower thousands of dollars over time.

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Weighing the Benefits of Bill Pay

Not having enough money is just one reason people pay bills late. In many cases, the complexity of managing competing bills is a factor. It can be difficult to stay on top of each individual due date, especially for one-off bill payments or those bills that get paid less frequently, such as quarterly and annual bills. If you pay different bills from separate accounts, paying bills can become even more tangled.

Adopting regular strategies for paying bills can help solve remembering when to pay each bill (and with which account).

One payment strategy is to use online bill pay tools to automate your finances. Instead of remembering to pay each individual bill, while keeping track of competing due dates and amounts, bill pay allows users to set a payment schedule in advance and then, essentially, to forget about it.

Automatic bill payments can be a key way to prevent late payments and to simplify this important aspect of managing one’s finances. Now that you know what bill pay is and how it works, you can decide if it’s a wise move for you.

The Takeaway

Bill paying is a necessity that can be simplified. Signing up for automated 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.

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Does bill pay take the money out right away?

In many cases you can determine when you want the transfer of funds to occur. You can pay in real time or schedule the payment for a later date.

Does bill pay send a physical check?

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

What is the difference between bill pay and ACH

Bill pay is a way of automating your finances. ACH (Automated Clearing House) is a network that moves funds electronically between banks. Bill pay may use the ACH network.

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