En español | Most Americans use online accounts to pay credit card, utility and other regular bills, but for many older bill payers, licking a stamp and mailing a monthly check or money order remains the norm. A 2019 study by financial-tech firm Fiserv found that nearly a third of people age 65 and older did not use online or mobile payments.
But the older adults who still prefer paying with paper are also among those potentially most vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. With federal and state officials urging at-risk people in particular to stay at home, now might be the time to avoid trips to the post office and the bank, and switch to online banking.
Financial institutions and companies that bill for services like water, power, insurance and internet access have made online payment simple and secure, and it's easy to get started.
There are two common ways to pay bills online: Pay companies individually via their websites or mobile apps, or authorize your bank or credit union to pay the bills from your account. There's no need to do one or other exclusively; use either method, or both, in whatever combination best suits your financial needs.
Paying companies individually
To set up individual payments, create an account at the company's site or app. You'll need to:
- Create a username and password to log in to the account.
- Give an email address and phone number so the company can contact you, for example, to confirm your identity when you log in (a process called “two-factor authentication").
- Link the account to a payment method (or methods), such as a bank account or a credit card. You'll need to provide the account number and, if using a bank, the routing number. (The number is printed on your paper checks, along with the account number.)
To make a payment, log in to the account and look for a “pay” or “payments” link. You'll be prompted to enter the amount, select the payment date and method and confirm the transaction. You'll typically get an automated email from the company affirming that you made or scheduled a payment.
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Paying online through your bank
Going through your bank can make online bill paying more like a one-stop shop. To get started:
- Create an online account on your bank's website or app, if you don't already have one.
- Once you've logged in, look for a “bill pay” link and create profiles for each of the companies (known as “payees") you want to pay. You'll need to enter information like the company's name and your account number with it.
- Enter how much you want to pay the company and on what date. Keep in mind that it may take a few days for bank payments to process, so schedule them to go out before the bill's due date.
You'll generally have to own a checking account with a bank to use its bill pay service. Most banks, especially larger ones, offer basic bill paying for free, but there may be a fee if you exceed a set number of payments per month, or for special features like accessing transactions from financial software. Read the terms and conditions carefully.
Having your bank pay your bills has the benefit of convenience; you don't have to juggle multiple payees and payee websites. But make sure you have enough in your account to cover those bills each month, especially if you set up recurring payments.
Is Online Banking Safe?
Banks and major companies use encryption and other technologies to keep customers’ personal and financial information secure. Data breaches do occur, but generally, paying bills online is safe as long as you follow some basic tips for safeguarding data on your end.
- Don't share personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call or email, even if it appears to be from your bank or a billing company. Crooks love to impersonate familiar firms to pry loose private data, a scam known as phishing.
- Don't click on links or download attachments from company emails or texts if you have any doubt that they are genuine.
- Change the passwords for your online financial accounts regularly.
- Use two-factor authentication, if available. This process adds an extra layer of security: To access your account, you need not only your password but also a one-time code the company sends you by text or email.
- Only pay bills and check accounts on a secure network, like your private home Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi in places like hotels, airports and coffee shops often lacks security protections.
Automate your payments
One advantage of paying bills online is that you can set up automated payments that go out on the same date each month. This option, typically available from both banks and individual payees, can save time and alleviate worries about forgetting a bill and incurring late fees or finance charges.
Automated payments are best suited to bills that are same amount each month, such as the mortgage, insurance premiums or streaming entertainment services. For bills that vary, such as credit cards and utilities, use recurring payments only if you know the account has enough in it cover an unusually large bill.
Automating payments doesn't mean ignoring them. Check your online accounts and bank statements regularly to make sure there haven't been any snafus and to keep track of changes, such as hikes in insurance premiums or cable rates.
Use your smartphone to deposit checks
Online banking isn't just for paying bills. You can also deposit checks that you have received, using your smartphone camera and your bank's mobile app, and avoid trips to the local branch.
First, find and download your bank's or credit union's app in the Google Play Store (if you have an Android phone or tablet) or the Apple App Store (if you use an iPhone or iPad). Once the app is installed, sign in to your account as you would at the bank's website.
To make deposits:
- Select “Deposit checks” in the navigation menu.
- Sign the back of the check and write “For mobile deposit only at (name of bank)."
- Photograph the front and back of the check. Many banking apps can take the pictures automatically, but you can also do it manually with your phone's camera. Shoot from directly above the check and make sure it fits fully within the frame.
- Enter the check amount, select the account you want the money to go to and submit the deposit.
Banks recommend that you note on the front of the check that it was deposited and on what date. Keep the check in a secure place until you know the deposit has been processed and the funds are available, then destroy it.