We can all use a simpler, more efficient way to manage expenses and save money. Putting your bills on autopay can ensure never forgetting a due date, which minimizes the risk of late fees and dings on your credit report. But, while automatic payments can save time and streamline your personal finances, it isn’t the right choice for every expense.
“Automatic bill pay is, for many, a lifesaving convenience,” said Carter Seuthe, CEO of Credit Summit. “If you have the money in your account reliably, you just set it and forget it. But convenience can also make it a curse for many reasons. Even for those who can afford it, if you’re being billed for something you no longer need, you may not notice if it’s automatic. Alternately, if your income fluctuates, you may not reliably have the money to pay it, which will overdraw your account and mean more fees on top of the negative balance you already have to contend with.”
Autopay is ideal for payments that are the same every month, such as your mortgage and car payments. You know what to expect from these bills, so it’s easier to plan and budget for automatic drafts. This isn’t the case with monthly expenses that fluctuate. Before you get excited and put your entire financial life on autopilot, here are several bills you should never put on autopay.
If you have an unlimited cellphone plan and your bill never varies, autopay is a time-saving strategy for managing payments. There’s also the option of setting up automatic payments for a non-unlimited cellphone plan. The problem, however, is the amount you owe can change from month to month, depending on data usage. And if you forget to read your cellphone statement in months where you owe more than usual, the extra funds taken from your bank account could trigger an overdraft and bank fees.
Some cellphone plans also don’t have the same billing date each month. While you might have a set date — say the 15th — others have a monthly cycle which varies depending on the number of days in the month. This doesn’t guarantee a consistent payment date each month. You could be caught off guard, or out of funds, if a payment posts when you weren’t expecting it.
Since autopay is a hands-off approach to paying bills, you’re also less likely to inspect your cellphone bill after setting up automatic payments. This means you might not catch billing errors and will pay more than necessary.
Utilities and Other Variable Expenses
Unless you’re on a budget plan through your utility company — which lets you pay a set amount every month — your water, gas and electric bills will fluctuate monthly. Therefore, it’s generally safer not to set utility bills on autopilot.
“Bills that fluctuate aren’t good fits for autopay, such as your electric or water bill,” said Bethany Hickey, banking and lending expert at Finder. “If you have an especially high-use month, autopay can put you at risk for overdrafts if you’re not prepared — and most overdraft charges are around $20 to $35 a pop.”
Initiating one-time payments every month involves signing into your accounts. In this case, you’re more likely to review statements before making a payment. And when you regularly review your statements, it’s easier to identify unusual price increases.
For example, a higher water bill can indicate a water leak in your house. If you set up auto-draft for this bill and never review your statements, a leak might go unnoticed for months and cause extensive damage to your home and your wallet.
A gym membership helps you get into shape and lose excess pounds. But you could lose more than that if you’re not careful.
If you’re committed to visiting the gym regularly, putting the monthly membership fee on autopay is a good idea. But despite your intentions, your actual time spent at the gym could be far less than anticipated — to the point where it no longer makes sense to pay for a membership.
With autopay, some bills become out of sight and out of mind. As a result, there’s a risk of losing track of money being drafted from your account. Or, you become so accustomed to paying certain expenses you fall into a rut of paying for a membership you never use.
On the other hand, if you pay monthly, you’re more likely to evaluate your gym usage occasionally and cancel the membership if you’re not using it.
Cable and Satellite Service
Your cable and satellite bills can vary, especially if you watch a lot of movies on demand. With your cable bill automated and funds taken from your bank account, you might never monitor the amount you spend on extra services.
Cable and satellite companies may increase their rates each year and include fees for new offerings, such as regional sports networks, on channels you don’t watch. Paying the traditional way, by check or by making a one-time payment online, gives you the chance to review your bill for price increases and all the options you might not be using.
Evaluating your cable or satellite bill will also let you know when all those promotional offers you signed up for have expired. This could motivate you to call the company and ask to renegotiate your services.
Video Streaming Services
Streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, are convenient because you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. But think twice before signing up for these services. If you have cable, some of the shows and movies offered by streaming services are available through your cable provider on demand.
If you get used to streaming fees coming out of your bank account or being charged to your credit card every month, you might pay these fees month after month without considering whether you need the services. When you sign up for streaming but don’t take full advantage of the service, you’re essentially flushing money down the toilet.
Music services, like Spotify and Apple Music, allow you to stream just about any song from any artist. The downside is you have to provide a credit card or bank account number before accessing songs. The music service automatically charges the monthly fee to your account.
Streaming music is a fun luxury, but only if you’re getting your money’s worth. If your usage drops and you stream less music (or you stop streaming altogether), the company continues to draft your account until you cancel your subscription. If you forget to cancel, you end up paying for a service you don’t use anymore.
Several beauty brands promote beauty box subscriptions, where subscribers receive a box of products each month to sample at home. This is a smart marketing tactic for cosmetic companies, and it’s an easy way for you to experiment with different beauty brands before paying the full retail price.
Since these subscriptions are relatively inexpensive — typically starting as low as $10 a month — it can seem like a minor monthly expense. But the cost of a beauty box subscription adds up over the course of the year. If you set up automatic payments for this subscription, you might neglect to break down the cost and calculate its value. You might spend more than $100 annually, yet only use a small percentage of the items in your boxes.
If you prefer reading the news over watching it, subscribing to a print or digital edition of a newspaper puts the latest headlines at your fingertips.
Some newspapers give subscribers the option of automatic payments. This isn’t a bad deal if you regularly read your newspaper. But if you get busy and pile the newspapers in the corner without reading them, you’ll waste money paying for a subscription you don’t use.
On the other hand, if you schedule one-time payments every month, you’re more likely to cancel the subscription once you’re no longer benefiting from the service.
Credit Cards (Despite What You’ve Heard)
Since you can avoid finance charges and toxic revolving debt by paying your credit cards in full every month, many experts suggest automating the payment of your monthly statement balance.
But there’s a solid argument to the contrary.
“Despite popular opinion, you should never put your credit card bill on autopay,” said Jeremy Grant, CEO of the parent-themed personal finance site Knocked-up Money. “Manually paying your credit card bill is a great reminder to review what you spent that month and assess if there’s anything you can cut back on. Prior to paying your credit card bill, make sure that each expense is legit and notify your issuer if you notice anything fraudulent.”
If you’ve ever had ongoing medical bills, chances are good that you disputed charges at some point — and that’s precisely why they’re a poor choice for automatic payments.
“Medical billing errors are common, and autopay could result in overpaying for services,” said Dennis Shirshikov, a finance professor at the City University of New York and head of growth at Awning.com. “It’s best to review your bills and ensure they’re accurate before paying.”
Annual Payments or Subscriptions
If you have subscriptions or services that renew once a year, like a membership with Amazon Prime or Costco, don’t set up automatic payments for these expenses. Even if you’re an organized person with an outstanding memory and a knack for writing everything on the calendar, annual expenses can catch you off guard.
“Avoid using autopay for any bill that is paid annually,” said finance expert Andrew Pierce, founder of asset protection specialists Real Estate Holding Company. “It is too easy to forget about annual bills and you may not have budgeted for them. If the payment is taken when you didn’t expect it, it could leave you short of available cash.”
When annual subscriptions auto-renew, you give the company or retailer permission to automatically charge your credit card or draft funds from your bank account on the next payment due date. If you don’t prepare for this expense, the company could draft your bank account when you don’t have enough funds in the account and cause an overdraft fee.
Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this story.
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