My Honda Civic has an option for cruise control. Unfortunately, most of my driving currently takes place on the New Jersey Turnpike and local highways during rush hour and construction, so I rarely have an opportunity to activate this feature. In the slim occasion I find myself driving on a deserted country road, I activate the cruise control and sit back, letting the car’s computer maintain my speed. I like to imagine cruise control is an auto-pilot device, so I can relax, close my eyes, and wake upon arrival.
If you’ve ever driven with cruise control, you’ll know it is not the same as auto-pilot. You have to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings, even if you’re not keeping your foot on the accelerator pedal. I have the same concerns with the topic of automating finances.
Making your finances automatic is a great way to put your savings into overdrive. I take advantage of technology’s ability to automate in a number of ways:
- My paycheck is directly deposited into my bank account every pay period.
- Several of my bills, as many as possible, are paid automatically and in full every month with the appropriate credit card.
- My credit cards are paid in full every month without me writing one check or clicking one button.
- A number of savings transfers and investments are programmed to occur at the same time every month, again with no intervention.
I would like to say that these features of automation have effectively put my finances on auto-pilot. It is true that I am now free to use the time I would have otherwise spent paying bills and depositing paychecks for other, possibly more worthwhile tasks. I am hesitant to call this system an “auto-pilot,” however. Like driving, I am still in charge and my brain needs to be engaged. If I stop paying attention, the likelihood of a crash increases.
I primarily use three credit cards, two for personal use and one for business use. Despite the cards’ close proximity in my wallet, their cycles have not converged. The payments are due at different times of the month. My checking accounts are debited automatically, so I need to ensure I have enough money in the appropriate accounts at the appropriate times to avoid an overdraft fee. The automation doesn’t permit me to to “set it and forget it.”
The same is true with my bills. I mentioned I drive on the New Jersey Turnpike every day. That’s an expensive commute. I use the E-ZPass system to make the drive go quicker and receive a discount on tolls, but this kind of automation lowers my sensitivity to increasing tolls. Since I’m not stopping at the booth and handing out cash, I don’t see that money leaving my wallet. I look at my quarterly statements from E-ZPass, but with 65 weekdays of toll charges, plus some on weekends, it’s easy to let the increases stay buried in my mind.
I’ve begun to offset the toll increases by opting non-toll roads occasionally but with more traffic lights on these alternate routes, I would have to wonder whether the extra fuel expense negates the savings in tolls.
Even though my utility bills like electricity, cable and telephone, as well as my credit cards, are paid automatically each month, I am sure to review the statement or transactions. It’s tempting to let cruise control handle everything. I mentioned that it’s important to ensure money is in the accounts prior to the automated withdrawals, but more attention is necessary. Reviewing statements and transactions is necessary to catch mistakes.
Mistakes can be on the company’s part or on the consumer’s; at least once I’ve forgotten to cancel a “free for the first month” service and was rewarded with a charge on my credit card. I would have remained ignorant of the charge if I didn’t review the statements and download my transactions into Quicken. And I have also experienced a number of mistakes, such as the cable company charging me for a service they didn’t provide.
Companies are quick to encourage automation because they know a certain percentage of consumers will let “mistakes” slip. That’s a statistic I don’t want to be.
What part of your finances is tackled automatically, and are you on auto-pilot or cruise control? Have you ever encountered mistakes you would have missed if you weren’t paying attention?
Photo credit: mhalon
Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published November 19, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.