Tired of going postal? You can beat those rising rates by paying your bills online

LOS ANGELES — First-class postage rates have gone up to 41 cents. Now, if you're like most Americans, you pay 20 to 30 bills per month. So for those of you still "going postal," the increase will cost you some 40 cents to 60 cents per month. Big deal, you say.

But as online banking improves, I see the increase as a clear tipping point. If you're still in the shrinking postal crowd, it's time to take another look.

According to the 2007 Consumer Bill Payment Survey just released by Harris Interactive and The Marketing Workshop, for the first time bill payments made online exceed paper check bill payments among online households. Some 74 percent of households pay at least one bill online.

Granted, online banking is hardly new. During the dot-com days, intrepid onliners used various financial software packages — Microsoft Money and Quicken — to help automate their bills and monthly statements.

But they had to learn the software. Then they printed lots of checks anyway since most recipients weren't set up to receive electronic payments. And banks charged fees for online banking activities. The software packages helped you categorize expenses and print neat checks, but they didn't save much time or money.

Now, I think we're finally saving time and money.

Banks change their tune

I've always admired the nerve of banks to charge for online banking. It saves them money too! According to an IBM study, it costs banks some 9 cents to 15 cents to process a paper check and about 1 cent to process an electronic transaction. Yet banks pushed online bill payment as a "value-added" service, often charging $5 to $10 per month and more.

While it's expensive for them to maintain both paper and paperless systems, banks have also turned the corner and now see the future as electronic. So monthly fees are gradually being set aside or more commonly bundled into packaged banking services like Wells Fargo's "PMA" and "Advantage" checking accounts.

In addition to bill paying, banks are now guiding us towards going paperless altogether. No more monthly statements, canceled checks or check images in the mail.

We'll save a lot of trees and, better yet, be able to access our records when and how we want. No more digging through file cabinets to find a canceled check; online statements can be organized as you please.

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