De-cluttering the planet one bill at a time

Earth DayI came back from my travels facing a stack of bills in my mailbox. I’ve been paying bills online for years now; with most major billers, this means that there’s no paper flowing back the other way.

The major credit card companies and utilities now offer online bills. Some banks (especially online only banks) either don’t offer paper statements or charge $3-$5 per month for a paper statement. I’ve already signed up for online statements from a number of billers.

This Earth Day, I’m working to reduce that even further by switching as many bills as I can to electronic.

The execution of online bills varies dramatically from company to company.

  • American Express has the best online account tools. Statements are available for the last six months. Older statements can be requested going back to 1994 and become online within a few days. The statements are available as PDFs and look pretty much like the paper bills.
  • Bank of America offers a choice of PDF or text statements. Go with the PDF.
  • Chase offers up to six years of statements online — if you turn off paper statements. Otherwise, you get up to six months. Statements are also in PDF format.
  • Citi has the worst online statements. The online statements don’t include all of the information that paper bills have and aren’t in an easily savable format. I’m sticking with paper statements until they improve.

You can also choose to get reminders a few days before your bill is due.

The biggest problem with online statements is that they don’t come to you. Because email is an insecure medium, you only get an email that there is a statement available to review online. You then have to go to the Web site to review the statement. This is a significant obstacle and inconvenience for many people. This is made even harder with the increasing “security” measures used by bank sites. (More on that later.)

It amazes me that 15 years after I started using email, it’s less secure than paper mail. It should be possible to get secure, tamper-proof, phish-proof email that includes sensitive personal information. I should be able to get the PDF emailed to me.

As much concentration as there is in the email business, the big email providers can make this happen. They just need to decide to work together to hammer out a system that works and dramatically improves email for all instead of focusing their efforts on marginal improvements to their individual products.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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