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Why don’t more consumers use automatic bill pay?

Alex Schmidt Sep 19, 2013
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Imagine never missing a bill payment. Imagine only having to remember one online password. That’s the pitch from a new online service called Manilla. It’s free, and automatically organizes all of your bills.

Sounds pretty good, right? But a lot of people aren’t even close to using a bill paying app. Many still use paper checks.

It’s been 13 years since online bill pay allowed folks to go paperless and automatic. But today, only 50 percent of U.S. consumers pay bills online. Why?

“The decision a person makes to adopt a new technology is based on two key factors,” says Fred Davis, a professor of Information Systems at the University of Arkansas. “Number one, their perception of whether the technology is useful. And secondly, it should be it should also be easy to use.”

Davis studies the ways consumers adopt new technology habits. He says personal finance habits take longer to change than the way you might switch from one smartphone to another. That’s because money is so important to us.

As Davis puts it, “Sometimes holding onto the old way of doing things is quite rational.”

He says it’s not just stubbornness and emotion that keeps people from changing.

“For them to use the electronic statement, maybe it’s going to be more of a hassle and more effort because now I have to log in and remember my password. So there is a convenience factor,” he says.

Now banks and other services would love to see consumers automate and ditch paper altogether. In fact, that’s one way free financial apps make a profit. Every time someone signs up and goes paperless, Manilla gets money from your cell phone company, your bank, or cable service. In the U.S., banks spend a combined $1.5 billion supporting paper check payments every year.

Paul McAdam, at Fidelity Information Services, says a few years back, the British government tried to set a deadline for elimination of paper checks.

But, McAdam notes, “They had to back off and completely scrap those plans due to public outcry, and they said that the U.K. naming system would keep checks as long as customers needed them. I think if a similar thing we’re tempted in the U.S., we’d see the same reaction.”

Folks here in the U.S. probably don’t need prodding. We’re writing fewer and fewer checks every year, and at that rate, they could naturally disappear by the year 2026. Rest assured, we the consumers will set the timeline.

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