Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mental accounting

While paying a stack of bills this morning, I noticed a new online payment option for one of our annual bills. With all the sabbatical travel we did last year, online bill pay and tracking was a lifesaver: I put monthly reminders into my calendar to login and pay our credit cards, billed the utilities directly, and didn't worry at all about missing payments while on the road. I had the checkbook in hand to pay today's annual bill the old-fashioned way, but decided to check out the ebilling option.

To my surprise, I paid the bill the old-fashioned way anyway. Signing up for ebilling meant another account and another password, and I have spent far too much time this week trying to remember various usernames and passwords for rarely-accessed sites. The website design rendered poorly on firefox, so the instructions were hard to read. Worst of all, the signup page stated that once you signed up for ebilling, you would no longer receive paper statements. You could get paper statements again at any time by calling customer service, who would then unenroll you from electronic bill paying. In other words, it appears that you can only pay your bill online if you agree to stop receiving paper statements.

The loss of a paper bill was the final straw for me. For annual bills, a piece of paper on my desk to remind me to make a payment is essential. Monthly bills are routine enough that my mental cycle checks in if I haven't issued a payment recently, but annual bills are hopeless. The volume of email I get mandates the use of email filters, and I sometimes ignore the non-essential filters for days or weeks at a stretch. At core, I simply don't trust my personal information management setup--ie, the combination of my calendar and email--to remind me about critical issues that only happen once a year. Out of sight, out of mind feels like a very real danger where annual bills are concerned. Something is clearly not working quite right when we choose not to use tools that supposedly save time and memory out of a fear that we might not remind ourselves to use them.


Natasha Lloyd said...

A couple months ago, our car insurance company started offering the ability to pay bills online. I use this for any bills I can, so I got excited about finally getting rid of the last paper bill that I had to pay the old-fashioned way (mailing a check).

When I got to their website, though, it was so poorly designed that I didn't feel safe giving them my bank account information. It just looked like they didn't invest enough money in setting up a proper e-billing service. You'd think they'd realize that people need to feel like their financial information is secure, but clearly that wasn't their priority. So to this day, I still pay that bill by mailing them checks.

mansu said...

I use SMS alerts in google calender to remind me that I should be paying the bills. I pay the bill online when i receive the alert. As long as one is disciplined to respond to his sms, it works wonders.

Coming to remembering passwords for websites that you visit less often, the best way is to pick a password that has a fixed part and a variable part. The fixed part is something you know and the variable part can be the name of the website. You can also write down the usernames and passwords in an encoded form and put it in a place which can be accessed anytime and from anywhere (ex: email, google docs etc..).