Thanks to Quicken, CheckFree and other online bill-paying services, it's been 12 years since I've had to worry about writing checks, stuffing them in envelopes and affixing stamps.
But a service that lets you pay bills on your computer solves only half the problem. You still need to open the envelopes, fiddle with the paper, figure out what you owe, type that information into a computer and file away the bill.
Now there are services that eliminate even those chores. Paytrust (http://www.paytrust.com), PayMyBills.com (http://www.paymybills.com) and StatusFactory.com (http://www.statusfactory.com) are part of a new breed of "bill-presentment services" that take advantage of the Internet to not only pay your bills but also display on your computer the equivalent of a photocopy of the original bill--even if it is hand-written.
These services are the latest evolution in online bill-paying, which began in the '80s with specialized software programs, such as Quicken or Microsoft Money, or software issued by banks that let you pay bills from your home or office PC.
For the past month, I've been using Paytrust.com, which recently agreed to acquire its largest competitor, PayMyBills.com. I'm so happy with it that I just canceled the Quicken bill-paying service that I have been using for years. Setting up payees and paying bills with Paytrust is faster and easier than on Quicken. And because Paytrust is on the Web, my wife or I can pay our bills from any Web-enabled device in the world, even when we're on the road.
Granted, I still use Quicken to track my total credit cards bills and various personal investments. I'm also still using my bank's (Union Bank of California) Web site to check my balances and transfer funds between accounts. (Like many banks, Union Bank lets me access account information free but charges $4.95 a month for online bill paying.)
But the beauty of Paytrust is that it lets you pay anyone online--your gardener, your baby-sitter, and, of course, your phone bills, credit cards, utility bills, insurance premiums and car payments.
Although Quicken offers its own service that displays copies of your bills, it works with only about 60 payees, mostly major banks, utilities and phone companies. So my gardener, and even some of my credit card companies, are not on Quicken's list.
Paytrust pays bills with your money by deducting it directly from your checking account. Like most online bill-payment services, the money stays in your account until the recipient either gets an electronic transfer or deposits the check itself. You can configure it to work with one or more accounts from any institution that offers check-writing privileges, including banks and investment brokers. Unlike some services, there is no extra charge to use multiple checking accounts even if they're from different institutions.
Paytrust is free for the first three months. After that, you pay $8.95 a month for up to 25 payments. Additional payments are 50 cents each. The pricing is comparable to what most banks and other online bill-payment services charge. As with all electronic payment services, you no longer have to pay for printed checks, stamps and envelopes.
Here's how it works. On Paytrust, when you set up a utility, credit card or any other payee, you have the option of establishing rules on how payments are to be made.
With "manual" pay, you decide how much, if anything, you want to pay. With "automatic" payment, you specify that you want the bill to be paid automatically as long as it is less than whatever amount you specify. And the "recurring" option, available from virtually all online bill payers, allows you to specify a fixed amount to be paid at regular intervals, such as weekly, monthly or semiannually.
Paytrust also gives me the option of having billers notified to send all future bills directly to Paytrust instead of to me.
When a bill arrives, you can get an e-mail notification to go to the Paytrust Web site and look at or print out a replica of the bill from, say, AT&T or American Express, or even a hand-scribbled bill from a baby-sitter. Paytrust opens and scans all incoming bills so you see them just as they look on paper.
The service also captures the total amount due and the minimum payment and presents this information as text on screen. That way, you can quickly pay the full amount or minimum due without having to type in the amount owed. Or you can choose to pay any amount or just file the bill if you don't want to pay it. You can also enter the date you want the bill paid.