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Kill Bill-I

Ever stood in a bill queue? Bill payment can be a pain even in this online age — unless you set up your bills for automatic payment, writes Prasanto K Roy.

tech reviews Updated: Mar 23, 2009 15:44 IST
Star Tech | Prasanto K Roy

Quick: How many bills do you pay each month? Most people I’ve asked haven’t a clue. Offhand, I didn’t, either. I counted over 30 bills: phone (6), electricity (3), insurance (9), water (1), mobile data card (1), house rent (1), credit card (4), and so on. Some 25 bills a month.

How much time do you spend on paying bills?
a. Lots.
b. None. My secretary/admin/driver does it all.
c. Very little. It all happens automatically.
With either a. or b. you’re wasting time.

Ever stood in a bill queue? Today, you can go online and pay. Both are a waste of time. Even with a Man Friday. Several people I asked said they don’t waste time paying online: instead, the driver goes down and pays the bills. (“He’s mostly sitting around, anyway.”)

Here’s the obvious problem with paying bills manually (online or otherwise): You miss bills. You miss payments. Services get disconnected.

And you waste time. I’d waste at least 40 man-hours a month if I were to send my driver for each bill. That’s nearly two man-months burnt each year, not counting petrol and the carbon footprint! Even if I were to pay online, each bill takes time to pay, and I’d need to remember each one.

Many billers support ECS payment: sign up and let them auto-debit your bank account or a credit card. But that’s inflexible. You can’t change it online on the fly, and you don’t get a detailed record. So what do you do? Use an automatic payment service.

For credit card bills, I’ve linked my cards to my bank account, so that they get paid automatically. I still have the option to pay manually (say, a cheque for an office expense), in which case that amount will get reduced from the monthly debit. Old-fogie Amex doesn’t allow me this flexibility, but ICICI and most others do.

For the rest of my bills, I use an online bill payment system, which automatically pays my bills.

Ignore your bills
Since 2003, I’ve been using BillJunction, setting it to auto-pay all billers that allow this.

It’s quite simple, really. Just go to BillJunction.com and register online (and enter your bank account details). You’ll get some papers to sign in a week – the agreement to let them debit your bank account. After that, you can set up billers: say Airtel, or MTNL, or BSES (electricity), or LIC.

You can set each biller for manual online payment, or (which is the whole idea) automatically with a limit that you define. You can change the instructions or the auto-pay limit anytime.

Once registered, the biller, say, Airtel, will present bills electronically to BillJunction, who will inform you by email (giving you a chance to review or stop the charge). It will then go ahead and make the payment to Airtel just before the due date, debiting your bank account. You get another mail confirming the payment.

For the past five years, therefore...
Almost all my bills were paid automatically (except my water bill: they don’t take e-payments yet).
I haven’t missed any bill payments, except for a few glitches (MTNL didn’t present the bill twice, etc.)
I have an email record of every payment made. (And BillJunction keeps a three-year archive.)
I didn’t realise the value of this last one until the income tax department targeted me for a ‘routine, random’ scrutiny last year. Suddenly, I needed details of not just income but all expenses for 2005 – three years ago! They asked for details of bills, too. Hey, no problem. I had my emails: I gave them a printout of each bill payment detail. They were stunned by the fat file I submitted and closed my case without any ‘cash payment’.

BillJunction charges you Rs 200 to 400 a year depending on your number of bills. It has its glitches (renewal isn’t smooth, for instance; customer service isn’t great), but it mostly works well.

There are other bill payment systems such as HDFC Bank’s BillDesk, ICICI Bank’s BillPay; some of them are free, but most don’t match BillJunction’s features; auto-pay, email alerts, bill records. There’s also VisaBillPay.in, where you can set up bills, get a reminder when they come in, and pay with your Visa credit card. But there’s no automatic payment. (If you use any better systems, let me know.)

This is the oldest tech I’ve ever covered in Star Tech: ten years old (it’s a surprise how many still don’t use it). Next week I’ll talk about one of the newest: mobile payment systems.

Prasanto K Roy (pkr@cybermedia.co.in) is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest and Living Digital