Computerized bill-paying may save time and stamps, but the services are costly


For some people, the ritual of paying bills ranks right up there with cleaning the toilet. The job has to be done, but it's distasteful and tedious.

Now, a handful of banks, computer software publishers and on-line computer services offer to handle the chore for you. They advertise electronic payment and home-banking services that make paying bills a breeze, eliminate the need to walk to the mailbox and even save you the cost of stamps.

BillPay USA and Checkfree, two computerized services, let users DTC pay any bills, from major corporations such as American Express to the local plumber, and on whatever day of the month the user wants.

If the company is equipped to accept electronic payments, it gets its money that way. If not, the companies will laser-print a paper check and mail it for you, along with a payment stub containing the same account information you get on your bills.

What such specialized services don't trumpet is their expense. Paying bills by computer can cost you as much as $73 to start and as much as $23 in monthly fees afterward -- assuming you have already bought a computer and modem.

Computerized services also carry the illusion of instant payment. But it can take as many as five business days to issue a payment and have it arrive in your creditor's account. So, you may have to be careful with time-sensitive payments such as your mortgage.

On the other hand, settling monthly debts the old-fashioned way -- writing about 20 checks, stuffing and licking 20 envelopes -- may cost you some time and about $8 in stamps.

Here are descriptions and typical fees of some of the new bill-paying options:

* Pay by phone through the bank. Paying bills by telephone is a relatively inexpensive way to eliminate the need for writing checks, if you can find a bank, such as Maryland National, that offers the service. Many banks, including First National, Provident and Signet -- don't offer the service.

Maryland National calls its service BankLine Money Manager. Every day from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., BankLine customers, armed with a merchant list and personal identification number, can use a touch-tone phone to pay credit cards, utilities, loans, medical bills, subscription bills, tuition, charitable donations, insurance premiums, brokerage firms and any other merchants they want from their checking accounts.

Customers designate whom should get paid, when and how much by following a series of computerized prompts and punching buttons on the phone.

People who are truly organized can schedule bill payments up to 90 days in advance.

They also can transfer funds, get account balances and conduct other bank business using BankLine Money Manager.

Filling out the merchant list takes the most time -- one to two hours to track down the names, addresses and account numbers of creditors. The bank confirms the completed list by mail, which may take 10 days to two weeks. After that, with about five to 10 minutes on the phone, BankLine customers can pay bills with abandon.

Maryland National's BankLine Money Manager costs $10 to set up and $2 per month, according to a BankLine representative. Checking account maintenance charges are additional. Customers who have checking accounts with per-check charges who have balances below the required minimum for their accounts pay an additional 40 cents per telephone transaction.

* Pay by computer through the bank. At Chevy Chase Bank, customers may pay bills and do an unlimited number of banking transactions electronically.

They need a personal computer and modem, of course. A Chevy Chase Home Banking representative says that customers also must have Prodigy computer software, which retails for $49.95, and pay a monthly subscription fee of $12.95 to the Prodigy on-line service. Chevy Chase then charges its customers who use Home Banking a $9 monthly fee, in addition to regular account maintenance fees.

Chevy Chase is the only Maryland-based bank that has established a link with the Prodigy on-line computer service. A spokesman from Prodigy's headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., said that the company has links with 14 banks nationwide that offer banking by personal computer.

* Pay by computer through "Bill Pay USA." Some Prodigy subscribers simply want to pay their bills electronically. They don't need other electronic banking services and don't want to switch to a bank linked with Prodigy. For them, Prodigy introduced on Sept. 6 an on-line service called Bill Pay USA.

The idea behind Bill Pay USA is simple: You fill out a merchant list with account numbers and addresses of merchants you regularly pay. That list is confirmed by mail, and you get a password to access Prodigy's Bill Pay USA application on your computer. From your computer keyboard, you indicate whom you want to be paid, how much and when. Punch "send," and Bill Pay USA electronically transfers money from the account you specify to your creditors' accounts.

You can't do full-service banking, such as making transfers and account balance inquiries, with Bill Pay USA. For that you need an account with one of the 14 banks linked to Prodigy. And you cannot pay the paper boy or your Aunt Jane with Bill Pay USA -- just professionals and companies.

Bill Pay USA costs $9.95 per month for up to 20 transactions. Additional transactions in groups of 10 cost $3.50 more. You must also have the Prodigy software and be a monthly subscriber to the basic on-line service.

* Pay by computer through "CheckFree." CheckFree, an electronic bill payment software package, is published by a Columbus, Ohio, company of the same name. CheckFree lets you pay your bills with a Macintosh or IBM-compatible computer and modem.

You install the software and use it to set up a merchant list. CheckFree confirms the list by mail. The software allows you to designate where, and how much, money should be sent. CheckFree disburses the payments and charges your account exactly on the dates you specify.

CheckFree software retails for about $29.95, according to a company representative. The service costs $9.95 per month for up to 20 transactions and $3.95 for each additional 10.

* Write checks yourself. The old-fashioned method of paying bills requires pen, stamps, wet tongue (or 90-cent squeeze bottle) and time. You can even save on the stamps if you pay through a bank that accepts utility bill payments.

The old way also offers a degree of assurance the newer computer and telephone programs may not: You know when your bills get paid because you mail them yourself.

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