It’s a fact that most of us have to pay our way for a decent life. I think this as I write a check to pay the electric bill. Will it be less next month because we had a power outage one day this month? I mull over the method I have chosen to pay my bills. I write checks. Mostly because that is the way I was trained long ago when I got my first paycheck and deposited it into a checking account I opened at my parents’ bank. I felt successful. I never once thought of my fledgling contribution to a capitalist society as I handed over that piece of paper representing money the bank would use in its own interests. It was safe, it was readily accessible (with a 24-hour delay) and, even though I had to pay for the checkbook, I felt it was the right and proper thing to do. It was 1974 and I was participating in the adult practice of earning and spending money. It felt like freedom…then. Now it’s more like captivity and endless responsibility.
With the advent of online banking, I swore I would never use my computer to manage my money. Look how simple it is to direct deposit your paycheck! Look how easy it is to pay your bills. Look at the instant overdrawn notices! You can call me old-school, but I don’t want it to be easy to pay my bills. Of course, some people like knowing they don’t have enough money to pay the VISA bill via a rude interruption during their TikTok postings. The archaic practice of writing the check and then deducting the amount from my balance keeps me in the loop.
Automatic payments came about when my life was very busy. Check here if you want us to automatically take money out of your bank account to pay this monthly fee. And know that sometimes we will fuck it up and take too much, but don’t worry, we’ll tell you if this happens (or not), so keep vigil over your email notices because you won’t want to miss that alert! I absolutely refuse to allow anyone to take money directly from my bank account…anymore. It’s just not a good idea even if you think it is. Thankfully, I was rescued from this nightmare scenario by paying online through PayPal instead, where whatever crap I think I need is paid for by my credit card. Even then, PayPal only tells me once a month how much I’ve racked up.
In a store, I can collect a credit card receipt and stow it in my receipts corner, behind the pencil cup on the counter in my kitchen. This makes it possible to drag them all out periodically and tote up the amounts to see just how much I’ve spent even before the credit card company extends the palm. Theoretically anyway. When I buy through PayPal, or online with my credit cards, the receipts come via email. I get at least 20-30 unsolicited emails daily, which clog my message page, especially when I don’t have time to delete all those annoying spammy things. Then I have to scan through the thousands of messages, legit or not, to seek out the emails with receipts for things I didn’t need but bought anyway. This creates a hole in knowing how much I’m spending.
Then came the day when I started taking over my mother’s financial affairs. We lived so far apart it took a full day of travel to get to her. Perhaps you have found yourself in this position. I had to search my mom’s house to find the checks and all bank related materials. We visited the bank together, which was a tolerable experience as the bank teller’s mother went to school with my mom, and was sensitive to the unpleasant business of relinquishing control of all one’s money. The bank staff seemed relieved to see me doing the deed as I handed over my papers for power of attorney. In this small town, everyone my mother did business with knew of her cognitive decline and were happy to see her getting some help. Thankfully, though this was one thing she insisted she could continue doing herself, she allowed me to take over anyway. How lucky we both were that it was she who taught me how to balance a checking account and could be relied upon to follow her rigorous standards.
Since our addresses were miles apart, I had to figure out how to pay for what my mom needed without too much fuss after I returned home. I decided to try switching her statements to an online format. I placed most of her bills on the “easy pay” plan and was able to quickly pay anything else via my computer. Long after my mother passed on, and despite the fact that all of her money management worked very well long-distance, I adamantly refused to trust my own cash to the internet.
I still get paper statements from my bank. I still sit down with my checkbook once a month and reconcile their numbers with mine. All the bills come by mail via our trusty mailman Mike from Boston, who always wears shorts, even in December. I’ve stopped asking him if his legs are cold when I’m inside my house with three layers of clothing on. Bills are a messy thing. Despite their timely delivery by Mike from Boston, they sometimes get shoved aside, buried beneath the general rubble or set aside for safekeeping. I sometimes have to go on a treasure hunt to find the bills coming up for payment. I usually try to amass them into two tidy piles—one for mid-month payment and one for end-of-month payment. This is an attempt to streamline the work of writing checks and performing math calculations.
If you are thinking I could save a lot of trees by doing my bill paying online, you are probably right. The truth of the matter is I don’t like doing it that way. Sometimes the internet goes down or my computer acts up. What would I do then? Set up automatic payments? Never again!! I think I am just so happy to have a quiet little moment when I don’t have to be on my computer. I can put on some gentle music, make a cup of tea, and round up all the essentials of old-fashioned bill paying: bills, checkbook, latest bank statement, pen, calculator (it’s on my phone, I’m not a total troglodyte), stamps, return address stickers I receive from numerous charitable organizations I have given money to, and a wet paper towel so that I don’t have to actually lick the envelopes to seal them. Sometimes I over-water the glue and the envelope gets soggy and I’m afraid it will get torn in the handling, so I set it aside to dry properly and then forget to put it in the mail. I never said it was a perfect system. It just works well-enough for me.
I make the bill-paying process a ritual. It’s not captivity, I admonish myself. I made choices to buy the essential and not so essential things needed for a good life. I’m not a spendthrift, so I’m only occasionally annoyed, when I go to review my expenses, by being reminded of that thing I truly did not need, but wanted anyway. It feels good to be quasi-responsible for keeping us fed and comfortable and able to communicate with the rest of the world even when I resent having to pay so much for it. No, chocolate is not essential for survival, but I need it to smooth the way and it’s way cheaper than bourbon, though sometimes we buy that too.
From the Hobbit House,