Help the environment, save money – but stay on top of your finances. Here’s how
Maybe it’s time to get rid of the statements, the random card offers, even the unwanted catalogs that land with a thump on the front porch. Not only would you be helping the environment, you’d be reducing clutter and even saving money.
If you’re thinking about making the switch from paper to electronic, here are some steps to make it happen – and some things to consider as you do so.
Going paperless in 3 steps
- Switch your bill delivery: Call your card issuer or go online; look for “Delivery options”or “Paperless settings” on your bank or card account settings dashboard.
- Stop junk mail: Use free or low-cost apps and services such as Opt Out, Catalog Choice, DMA’s Mail Preference Service and PaperKarma. Switch to mobile apps, browser extensions and websites to keep enjoying coupons and promotions.
- Address potential downsides: Make sure to pay your bills on time by enrolling in autopay or setting up a calendar reminder. Open and examine your e-bills on a regular basis. Keep copies of your statements on your computer and protect them behind a strong password.
1. Switch your bill delivery
“The financial institutions all make it extraordinarily easy,” said Jim Marous, owner of the The Digital Banking Report. “With about two clicks, you can transition your statements from paper to electronic.”
There’s good reason for that ease of access: Every time someone goes electronic, the bank saves on paper and mailing costs. So either go to your card issuer’s website or call them; it will be a simple process. (Hint: When online, look for “Delivery options”or “Paperless settings” on your account dashboard.)
Of course, you can always opt to keep the paper coming and receive e-statements as well. This may seem to negate the point, but experts argue there may be some wisdom in this approach (more later on this point).
Some banks now even charge for paper statements, so you might save money if you go all-electronic. U.S. Bank, for example, charges checking customers a monthly maintenance fee of $8.95, but they go paperless, it’s $6.95. TD Bank charges a $1 monthly fee for paper statements.
Some consumer advocates think this may not be legal. Banks are required by law to provide written statements to their customers. The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Boston, is urging the federal government to forbid financial institutions from charging fees for paper statements that they are legally required to provide.
“Even a small fee can discourage consumers from getting information in the way that works for them,” wrote authors Chi Chi Wu and Lauren Saunders in the NCLC’s 2016 report “Paper Statements: An Important Consumer Protection.”
Nessa Feddis, senior vice president for the American Bankers Association, says, “Some institutions have introduced incentives to encourage customers to use electronic statements, but the overwhelming majority of banks continue to offer paper statements at no charge.
2. Stop that pesky junk mail
So now you have your credit card and bank statements out of your mailbox. Still, that leaves a lot of paper piling up.
- To get rid of prescreened credit offers, go to OptOutPrescreen.com, a site run by the credit reporting industry. There, you can have your name removed from the prescreened lists for either five years if you opt out online, or permanently if you do so by mail. (Also, if you’ve previously opted out and changed your mind, you can opt back in). The Federal Trade Commission has a helpful discussion about this process on its site.
- One drawback: Financial institutions will stop wooing you directly. Still want to discover new credit cards? Many of those offers are now also available online. CreditCards.com, for example, offers news of the latest products and promotions, plus reviews that can help you decide which cards and limited-time offers are best for you.
- To eliminate unwanted catalogs, go to CatalogChoice, a free service that reduces unwanted and duplicate catalogs from your mailbox.
- To reduce the rest of the junk mail, the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service lets you remove your name from some junk mail lists for 10 years for a fee of $2. Another paid option is the PaperKarma app. For $1.99 per month, or $19.99 per year, you snap a picture of the offending piece of junk mail and the app will do the work of unsubscribing you. You can also ask Red Plum to stop sending you their mailers. And here’s the link to halt those Valpak envelopes.
- The mail isn’t the only place to get coupons now. If you still want to see the Valpak coupons, they are available online. There also is a wide array of coupon apps and browser extensions that will help you keep having access to sales, rebates and promotions. The only possible downside, for those who prefer anonymity, is in many cases you will have to register with them before they offer you coupon access.
3. Address potential downsides of going paperless
As enticing as it may be to clear your snail-mailbox, there are precautions you should take – and risks you should keep in mind – if you switch from paper to electronic statements.
- Remind yourself to pay your bill: That stack of paper by your checkbook or computer may be how you track what is due and when. Electronic bills introduce a new wrinkle, with a couple of possible solutions:
- Enroll in automatic bill pay. Just make sure there’s money in the account when the due date rolls around.
- Set up automatic email or text alerts. You can ask the financial institution to send these for any number of reasons, including balance alerts and payment alerts. HSBC Bank customers, for example, can request alerts for any transaction above an amount they select in advance. Chase will even notify a user, for example, when a charge has been made at a gas station.
- Stick a reminder on your calendar. If you use an electronic calendar, set up a monthly reminder. This is especially helpful if you tend to ignore emails or official-looking text messages.
- Open and examine your electronic bills: A 2015 report by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that most people aren’t checking the details of their online statements. Only 10 percent of active online accounts are reviewed by their cardholder in any given quarter, the study found.If you’ve made the switch to all-electronic, you’re taking a gamble with your finances if you don’t review those statements regularly, warns the NCLC in its March, 2016 report.
Consider what you might miss:
This last point might seem far-fetched, concedes Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the NCLC.
Sure, major financial institutions seem trustworthy. “But would you have said that a year ago about Wells Fargo?” she said. “And look what they did.”
Saunders gets her statements both electronically and on paper.
- Save your statements: Download those PDFs and create files for them on your computer. Sure, the bank says it will store the statements for years for you. But some financial institutions charge for copies of past statements. Bank of America and Wells Fargo, for example, each charge customers $5 to send a print copy of a bank statement in the mail. Others may not keep records of statements as far back as the IRS may request in an audit.
- Do yourself a favor and keep your own records. Electronic statements may be even more secure than paper, said Greg Palmer of Finovate, a Seattle-based financial technology conference organizer. “The least secure your information ever is is when it’s sitting in your mailbox,” he said.
- Use strong passwords if you’re concerned a thief might gain access to your computer or bank accounts. You also might consider signing up for a password-generating service like LastPass or RoboForm.
Becoming a paperless consumer and cardholder has never been easier. By taking some simple steps and using the right tools, you could save money, take care of the environment and reduce clutter.
Just make sure to stay on top of your finances and bill payments while you transition from paper to electronic.