When it came to her bills, my grandmother kept it simple. Big Mama paid her bills by only two methods -- cash or money order (she didn't like fooling with a checking account).
By the time I started paying my own bills, it wasn't so simple. I pay some bills with a check, others online. I've paid bills over the telephone. For some bills, I have authorized my creditor to take payment directly from my checking account.
Occasionally, I have needed to use our credit card, such as when the auto insurance bill accidentally got tucked away in a pile of papers. By the time I discovered the bill, it was due that day. No problem. I paid with our credit card at no additional fee (I don't make a habit of this and neither should you).
Thankfully, bill-paying has gotten more convenient. Big Mama had to actually leave the house to pay her bills. Of course, that was partly because she didn't believe a bill was really paid until she handed it to a billing clerk.
Me, I can pay my bills in my pajamas. But with that convenience comes the possibility of many complications and headaches.
The fact that there are so many choices means you need to understand the pros and cons of each payment methodt.
* Let's start with cash.
Russian author Anton Chekhov said: "When you live on cash, you understand the limits of the world around which you navigate each day." Cash doesn't have any lingering obligations. You pay and go.
"There is also no risk of billing errors," said Shelley Curran, policy analyst for Consumers Union.
But cash has its shortcomings. Once a business has your money, if there is a problem with the service or merchandise, the merchant is the dictator, deciding your avenues of remedy or refund.
* If you want better billing protections, consider using a credit card. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act you have certain rights if, for example, you've been billed for merchandise you returned or never received. You're also covered if you are double-billed or your credit card company fails to credit a payment to your account.
If you want to know more about your consumer rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act, go to www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/fcb.htm.
Increasingly, many consumers are using credit cards to make payments for everything from their rent to their tax bills. But be careful about using credit for recurring bills.
Remember, when you pay with plastic, you're paying your bills with other people's money. Take heed of the rest of the Chekhov quote, which goes: "Credit leads into a desert with invisible boundaries."
* If a checking account is your preferred payment method, you do have some consumer protections under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which can vary by state.
For example, let's say you've paid by check but notice a major billing error before the check clears. You have the right under the UCC to stop payment on that check.
* Frankly, I prefer paying bills online. The majority of my household bills are paid this way. The best part is you can set it up so your bank sends the payment regularly without your having to type in the information every month.
* You can also choose to pay by direct payment, also known as automatic debit. With this payment method, you may have to give each business a voided check and/or written permission to have the payment withdrawn electronically from your account.
Nationwide, consumers paid about 2.8 billion bills in 2003 using direct payment, according to Michael Herd, director of public relations for NACHA, the Electronic Payments Association.
Herd said you can use direct payment even if your bill isn't the same amount each month. You won't be blindsided by the amount taken because companies are required to notify you at least 10 days in advance what the payment will be, he said.
"As with all electronic funds transfers, direct payment transactions are covered by the Federal Reserve's Regulation E and the NACHA rules for the banking industry, which together provide consumers with significantly better protections than when paying by check," Herd said.
But online and direct payment have their own drawbacks.
Once the bank didn't send my online payment on time, which resulted in a late fee for that bill. Well, needless to say, I was hopping mad. I got on the telephone with my bank right away and complained. Since it was the bank's fault, I didn't have to pay the late fee (and the late payment didn't go on my credit report).
With direct payment, consumers sometimes have problems discontinuing the automatic debits.
If you want to stop a direct payment, do it a few months before you actually need to, suggests Shirley Rooker, president of Call for Action, a nonprofit network of consumer hotlines. You may have to pay by check for a couple of months, but that may be easier than trying to recover your money, she says.
The fact is, every payment method has pluses and minuses. However you decide to pay, it behooves you to pay attention to the potential costs and pitfalls, as well as consumer protections.
Researcher Lorraine Denis-Cooper contributed to this column.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and questions are welcome, but please note that they may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.