Admit it, those computers we were scared of 10 years ago make paying our bills a lot easier. In the olden days, we’d sit down every month and write a check to pay each bill that passed through our mailbox. Now, we can pay bills without even looking at them, authorizing a bank to draft funds from a checking account or letting companies and credit cards to debit money directly.

It once seemed terrifying, now it’s second nature. And there’s no harm in letting a bank handle your bills, right?

Well, maybe. Automated payments and electronic banking make it easier to pay bills, but you still have to track your bills, said Scott Lang, a senior vice president at NACHA, the Electronic Payments Association, which oversees the technology used for automated payments.

Like with all innovations that make life more convenient, automated bill payments can have a downside, including poor personal finance habits. And as more forms of automatic drafts become available, such as paying bills via mobile devices, it’s important to know the basics.

What is automatic bill payment?

By either allowing credit card companies to automatically draft money from your account or allowing vendors (such as Verizon or Dominion Power) to draft from checking accounts, automatic payment ensures you’re never late in paying your bills. “Every month, consumers pay 500 million bills via online banking, recurring automatic payment, or to the biller directly,” Lang said. “It’s more convenient and also more environmentally friendly and typically helps people pay their bills in a more timely matter.”

Who should use it?

Ask yourself: Are you living paycheck to paycheck? Or do you pay your credit cards on time and have money to spare in your checking account? If you’re the sort of diligent person who can use auto pay without worrying about overdraft fees, then take advantage of it. “But if you tend to overspend, it might be best not to have it all done automatically,” said Joan Goldwasser, senior reporter for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine. “Get reminders that the bill is due instead, and . . . review your bills every month.” Goldwasser warned.

Why is it popular?

It’s a quick and fast way to follow payments on one screen, without a trail of paper on the kitchen table. “It means that your bills are always sent out as you’ve scheduled them. You don’t have to worry about forgetting,” Goldwasser said. You also don’t have to worry about losing receipts or bills in the mail. “If you’re already using your online banking system, you can see every transaction in one place,” Lang said.

Does it save you money?

The verdict is still out. With many big banks charging for checks (and the price of stamps) it seems paying online is faster and cheaper. But having to write a check each month might actually help you spend less. “There is something to be said for the view that if you use a credit card, you actually spend more than if you pay with cash,” Goldwasser said. The same can be said for auto pay.

The hassles

If you plan on changing banks, automatic bill payment can be a hassle. You’ll have to notify every vendor — the utility companies, phone companies, credit cards — of your new account. “One of the biggest negatives is if you change banks, it can be a nuisance,” Goldwasser said. Also, you have to remember to notify vendors of credit card expiration dates and new cards.

Beware of convenience fees

Late last year, when consumers voiced outrage over Verizon’s $2 convenience fee for online bill payment, Verizon dropped plans for the charge: That sort of thing doesn’t fly. You should never pay a convenience fee to automate your bills — period.

Keep those receipts

Many of us are guilty of relying on the “search mail” feature to check whether we automatically paid a bill. That’s a sure way to lose track. Print receipts and keep them in a folder, or if you’re being green, keep a digital folder of receipts on your computer (and back up those files!).

Privacy concerns

Lang says paying bills online actually protects privacy: “The error rate is a lot lower than with check payment. If someone with fat fingers makes a mistake entering an account number, it’s typically caught early.” Also, fewer parties see your account and routing numbers if you’re not using checks. But remember: Always have good password protection.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Although banks and vendors have simplified automatic bill payment, it’s not an excuse to ignore your finances. Be sure you’re studying your bills, even if you’re not using ink to pay them.

On Sale

Periwinkle is celebrating the second anniversary of its store in Shirlington Village by offering a 10 percent discount on full-price merchandise at all locations. If you make a purchase at the Shirlington location, you also get a free gift: custom-made Eliza B flip-flops. Potomac Greens, 1557 Potomac Greens Dr., 703-519-5242; Shirlington Village, 4150 Campbell Ave., #104 , 703- 379-5242; and National Harbor, 160 American Way, 301-567-5242. See www.periwinkle.com for the stores’ hours.

Spiff up your table for spring. Through March 12, West Elm is marking down bowls, mugs, dinner plates, glasses and placemats by 20 to 25 percent. A Dots + Stripes bowl for snacks or ice cream, formerly $8, is now $6. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. 3333 M St. NW, 202-333-2928 and www.westelm.com.

S&K Consignment Boutique has moved up the block on Wisconsin to an upper-level space of 7,000 square feet, allowing it to showcase a lot more silver costume jewelry, furniture, artwork and collectibles. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 7034 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-634-2330.

Phalaenopsis orchids in whites, yellows, pinks and purples, originally $39.95, are now $29.95 at Behnke’s Potomac location. These blooms are likely to last as long as three months, weeks longer than fresh-cut flowers for $12 a bunch. You do the math. 9 a.m.-5:30 daily. 9545 River Rd., Potomac, 301-983-9200. behnkes.com/website.

— Janet Bennett Kelly

THE BOTTOM LINE Although banks and vendors have simplified automatic bill payment, it’s not an excuse to ignore your finances. Be sure you’re studying your bills, even if you’re not using ink to pay them.

What you need to know about automatic bill payments

What is automatic bill payment? By either allowing credit card companies to automatically draft money from your account or allowing vendors (such as Verizon or Dominion Power) to draft from checking accounts, automatic payment ensures you’re never late in paying your bills. “Every month, consumers pay 500 million bills via online banking, recurring automatic payment, or to the biller directly,” Lang said. “It’s more convenient and also more environmentally friendly and typically helps people pay their bills in a more timely matter.”

Who should use it? Ask yourself: Are you living paycheck to paycheck? Or do you pay your credit cards on time and have money to spare in your checking account? If you’re the sort of diligent person who can use auto pay without worrying about overdraft fees, then take advantage of it. “But if you tend to overspend, it might be best not to have it all done automatically,” said Joan Goldwasser, senior reporter for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine. “Get reminders that the bill is due instead, and . . . review your bills every month.” Goldwasser warned.

Why is it popular? It’s a quick and fast way to follow payments on one screen, without a trail of paper on the kitchen table. “It means that your bills are always sent out as you’ve scheduled them. You don’t have to worry about forgetting,” Goldwasser said. You also don’t have to worry about losing receipts or bills in the mail. “If you’re already using your online banking system, you can see every transaction in one place,” Lang said.

Does it save you money? The verdict is still out. With many big banks charging for checks (and the price of stamps) it seems paying online is faster and cheaper. But having to write a check each month might actually help you spend less. “There is something to be said for the view that if you use a credit card, you actually spend more than if you pay with cash,” Goldwasser said. The same can be said for auto pay.

The hassles If you plan on changing banks, automatic bill payment can be a hassle. You’ll have to notify every vendor — the utility companies, phone companies, credit cards — of your new account. “One of the biggest negatives is if you change banks, it can be a nuisance,” Goldwasser said. Also, you have to remember to notify vendors of credit card expiration dates and new cards.

Beware of convenience fees Late last year, when consumers voiced outrage over Verizon’s $2 convenience fee for online bill payment, Verizon dropped plans for the charge: That sort of thing doesn’t fly. You should never pay a convenience fee to automate your bills — period.

Keep those receipts Many of us are guilty of relying on the “search mail” feature to check whether we automatically paid a bill. That’s a sure way to lose track. Print receipts and keep them in a folder, or if you’re being green, keep a digital folder of receipts on your computer (and back up those files!).

Privacy concerns Lang says paying bills online actually protects privacy: “The error rate is a lot lower than with check payment. If someone with fat fingers makes a mistake entering an account number, it’s typically caught early.” Also, fewer parties see your account and routing numbers if you’re not using checks. But remember: Always have good password protection.