Entrepreneurs hail from hundreds of disparate cities, industries and backgrounds, but one thing they have in common is an appreciation for plastic. Paying by credit card is convenient, it allows business owners to maximize their cash flow, and it offers the accumulation of rewards or points that can add up to thousands in free services each year. For regularly recurring bills, however, nothing beats the convenience of automatic bill payment, the kind typically offered online through consumer and business checking accounts.
Now, paying recurring bills automatically by credit card, which offers the best of both worlds, is catching on big with small businesses. Over the past two years, New York City-based American Express has seen its charge volume for automatic bill pay for small-business customers grow by 30 percent per year, says Karen Rosenberg, vice president of OPEN from American Express, the company's small-business unit. She sees it as a way to replace check-writing, with added benefits. "It helps [business owners] consolidate spending on the card and lets them better track and manage cash flow," she says.
American Express and its rivals, MasterCard and Visa, have all developed sophisticated online reporting tools to enable users to keep track of expenses and slice and dice them for budget purposes. Looking at a monthly or quarterly statement, business owners can see how much they're spending on utilities or subscriptions, or on over-night deliveries, says Doreen Amano, vice president of global product development at MasterCard International in Purchase, New York. "That can potentially help with negotiation with vendors when it comes to rate reduction," she notes.
For Ava Seavey, president of Avalanche Creative Services, an advertising firm based in New York City, convenience and the consolidation of expenses were key reasons to sign up for automated bill payment with half a dozen recurring vendors. Seavey's company employs only four full-time people but boasts several high-profile clients, and she only has part-time financial help from her controller and bookkeeper. "So anything I can do to save my time is worthwhile," says Seavey, who uses American Express for most business expenses. "I find that this minimizes the paperwork. Time is money, and writing checks costs money."
Then again, credit can cost money, too, if balances are allowed to slide. One finance charge or late penalty can erase a month's benefits of card use, so it's only worth doing if the balance is paid in full each month. In an effort to minimize debt, many entrepreneurs are turning to debit or check cards instead, which offer a lot of the same benefits.
"There's an overall concern about accumulated debt among small-business owners," says Diana Knox, senior vice president of Visa USA in San Francisco. She notes that business credit spending is up, but Visa has seen both business credit and debit growing by double digits over the past few years. Business owners can sign up for automatic bill pay with Visa and earn points or rewards through the Visa check card, just as they would with a credit card. And through its online reporting tool, Visa Information Source Select, launched this past summer, entrepreneurs can view all their credit and signature-based debit transaction information in one place.
For those who want to pay everything automatically on the same piece of plastic, the wait will be a little bit longer. The list of merchants set up to handle automatic bill payment is certainly growing, but it's only a fraction of the vendors out there that business owners have to pay each month. "I don't think too many landlords take [American Express]," quips Seavey. But if they suddenly decide to start, she says she'd be happy to put the rent-and anything else she could-on the card as well. "Of course," she adds, "they'd have to extend my credit limit a little."
C.J. Princeis executive editor of CEO Magazine.