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Can You Pay Bills Directly from a Savings Account?

| Money Rates Columnist.
min read

asian-woman-paying-billsIt is possible to pay bills directly from your savings account - but should you?

Most financial institutions pay a higher interest rate on savings accounts than on checking accounts. So why shouldn't you put all your money into your savings, earn the higher interest, and pay bills from that account?

There are two main reasons not to pay bills routinely from savings:

  1. It's more difficult to save money when you co-mingle funds.
  2. Savings accounts are not designed to process daily transactions. (By law, banks are required to limit certain withdrawal transactions to six per month.)

However, there are some occasions when you might need to use your savings account to pay bills. It's just not a good thing to do on a regular basis.

Why Paying Bills from Your Savings Account is Not Wise

The primary purpose of a savings account is to store your money safely and earn interest on it. That makes having one or more savings accounts a good foundation for building your wealth.

But it's harder to build wealth when the money you've set aside for saving constantly fluctuates because it's available to pay bills. Savings grow fastest when they earn interest and that interest is compounded, but that only happens when the funds are left alone.

So while some banks might allow you to make purchases or pay bills directly from your savings account - and some may even provide a debit card to facilitate that - the fact that something is possible doesn't make it a good choice. It's counter-intuitive: Debit cards are for spending money, not saving it.

There's another reason the strategy of going for the higher interest rate on a savings account and using that for all your day-to-day expenses is impractical:

The fees for exceeding the six-withdrawal limit set by Regulation D will wipe out any higher interest you might earn.

Regulation D - Why Savings Accounts Have Withdrawal Limits and Fees

Banks and other financial institutions use the balance on your accounts to lend money to their borrowers. That's their main source of profit. Left unchecked, banks would lend out all their account holders' money.

To protect depositors, the Federal Reserve formulated Regulation D, a rule that requires all financial institutions to hold back a portion of monies on deposit in its accounts as a reserve.

Regulation D makes a distinction between transactional accounts (like checking accounts used for making payments on a regular basis) and savings accounts, though.

Transactional account balances fluctuate more and are, therefore, more unpredictable than the balances in savings accounts. Furthermore, the higher volume of transactions increase costs for banks, which they pass on to consumers in the form of fees or lower interest paid on deposits.

Because checking accounts are set up as transactional accounts, a bank or credit union cannot count on all that money being there all the time, so they are required to set aside a higher reserve on checking accounts. Of course, that limits the profits they can earn from checking account deposits.

Savings account balances, on the other hand, tend to remain more stable. Therefore, banks are allowed to hold back a lower percentage of reserves against savings account deposits. That means they can lend out a higher percentage of those deposits and make more money from them. In turn, that allows banks to offer their depositors higher interest rates on savings accounts than on checking accounts.

Regulation D also ensures that savings account deposits remain stable by limiting certain withdrawals to six transactions per month and imposing fees on excessive withdrawals.

Once you exceed that, most banks charge you anywhere from $10 to $15 per transaction over the limit. Some banks' terms and conditions even allow them to close your savings account or convert it into a checking account.

Exceptions to the six-transaction limit

There are a few exceptions to the six-transaction limit. Withdrawals at an ATM or in person at a branch are not included. Also excluded are check withdrawals if the check is mailed to you as the depositor.

Reg D, and its penalties for excessive withdrawals, is probably the biggest single reason paying bills or making purchases directly from a savings account is not a practical idea.

How to Pay Bills from Your Savings Account

Given that paying bills or making purchases directly from your savings account on a regular basis is not the best practice, there are times when you might need to do that.

An emergency fund, for example, is money usually set aside in a savings account so it can earn interest and grow until those funds are needed. And even though you work to avoid emergencies, it is better to use your savings to pay bills than to go into debt.

In that type of situation, there are still ways to maximize interest on your money without losing all flexibility in making purchases or paying bills when necessary:

  1. Branch transactions

    This (literally) involves a little legwork. The Reg D withdrawal limit does not include ATM or branch visit transactions. So you can overcome the limit to some degree by making a trip to a branch or ATM to transfer money to your checking account without that withdrawal counting toward the limit.
    In order to do this, you'll need to obtain an ATM card for your savings account. An ATM card is different from a normal debit card, in that you can't use it for purchases -- you can only use it at your financial institution's own ATMs to withdraw cash or to make transfers.

  2. Credit card usage

    A second strategy is using a credit card for as many purchases and payments as possible, then making one single withdrawal to pay off the card purchases every month with a single transaction.

  3. Open a high-interest checking account

    An interest checking account is just what it sounds like: a checking account that pays interest on your cash, and without the monthly transaction limit.

    Online financial institutions (banks and credit unions, mainly) are often able to offer higher interest rates for all their financial products and services because they don't have the burden of maintaining brick-and-mortar facilities. By using this site, you can quickly and easily find a checking account paying high interest. It may not be as high as you can earn on a savings account, but it may come close.

  4. Open one or more money market accounts

    Money market accounts often pay a higher interest rate than regular savings accounts. However, many have even tighter limits on the number of withdrawals, but most of them offer checks with which to pay a few bills. You can increase the number of withdrawals per month if you have a second money market account, though.

  5. Schedule a single withdrawal for all bills

    This alternative may require a little more effort. Schedule all of your monthly payments, such as utilities, rent/mortgage, phone, etc., closely together, within the same week if possible. Then make a single withdrawal from your savings account to cover them all, deposit that into your checking account, from which you then make the payments as usual.

    If you budget your other expenses and purchases, you should be able to make one withdrawal every week or two, and end the month with fewer than six withdrawals while still earning the highest amount of interest each month.

Aside from Reg D compliance and its over-limit fees, it's just bad practice to co-mingle monies meant for saving and living expenses in one account.

Many personal finance experts have shown over and over that it's far easier to reach savings goals when your savings are out of sight. It is also why making contributions to your savings and investment accounts the moment you receive your paycheck has repeatedly shown to be one of the most effective strategies to build your personal net worth.

However, it's nice to know that you can pay bills directly from your savings account if necessary.

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