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Blog: Why should we pay for paper bills?

Paperless billing, like self-service checkouts, is here to stay it seems, as more firms impose charges on customers who prefer a hard copy. This isn't fair, argues Sue Hayward.

Woman looking at paper document

If you want to be sent paper bills by a utility firm such as your energy, TV or phone provider, chances are you'll have to pay for the privilege.

Some firms effectively charge nearly £25 a year for what many of us see as a basic right.

It seems every household utility firm is keen to cash in if you don't want to go online and check your bill.

But even if you opt for paperless billing, as I do, it can be more hassle than it's worth to try and unearth your online bill.

Paperless billing problems

I'm a personal finance journalist so I make my living based on telling others how to save money but, as crazy as it sounds, I now pay Sky £1 a month for a hard copy of my bill.

It goes against all my money-saving principles, but it's purely because it has been so difficult to access my account online.

Having an email address and user name should make it easy to log in and check my bill.

However, whether it's glitches in Sky's system or how my account's been set up, I can never seem to access my account.

Caught in the 'reset password' loop

One time, after an endless loop of resetting passwords, I thought I'd finally made it - but then the whole screen distorted producing unreadable layers of duplicate typeface.

And ringing Sky customer service always resulted in a lengthy wait.

So, in the end,  I decided that it was far less stress and hassle to pay the pesky pound for a bill in black and white.

I think paperless billing work best when firms email customers to alert them to a new bill, stating how much is owed, when payment is due and allowing for easy online account access.

It's paper not gold dust

The typical cost of producing an itemised paper bill is around 19p, but some companies, such as TV, phone and broadband provider TalkTalk charge £1.90 a month: that's £22.80 a year.

Rainbow and a pot of goldThis is according to research from the Keep Me Posted group, which is campaigning for customers to have the option of free paper bills. 
 
"It's unacceptable that many service providers charge customers to receive paper copies of bills," says Judith Donovan, chair of Keep Me Posted.

Other companies which impose charges include Virgin Media at £1.75 a month or £21 a year, and 3, EE and BT all at £1.50, which adds up to £18 a year.

Sky and O2 charge £1 and 99p a month respectively, which works out at £12 a year.

Keep Me Posted says around 11 million adults can't use the internet effectively, which means they're being forced into paying for paper bills.

Are firms allowed to charge for paper bills?

"At present there's no clear regulation or legislation in place to ensure companies have to provide a choice in how they communicate with their customers," says Donovan.

I spoke to industry regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about this.

It says the "expectation" is that statements and bills should be "provided in a durable medium". This should be freely available, but what constitutes a "durable medium" is open to debate. 

The FCA says that providing billing information online could be considered sufficient, which means companies may well be able to justify charging for paper bills.

However, in the event a company website crashes, which means customers can't gain access to online accounts, a situation like this could mean a stronger case to argue for a free paper bill.

But the FCA says you'd probably need to make a case to show why you desperately needed to see the bill during this time.

What do you think?

Are you put out by paper billing charges? 

We want to hear from you! You can share your views on the message board below.

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Sue Hayward

Carl Chambers

Sue Hayward is a personal finance broadcaster, journalist and author. Sue talks and writes on money matters including chatting on BBC Radio & TV as well as contributing to magazines, websites and newspapers. Sue's also written two books; the latest of which is 'How To Get The Best Deal'.

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