TidBITS has long paid our writers. That’s easy to say, but when you have to send money to a number of people in varying amounts each month, the mechanics of how the payments actually happen matter.
In the early days, we wrote checks. Or, rather, Tonya did, as part of her CFO duties. Between TidBITS writing and Take Control royalties, we were paying up to 25 people per month. At the time, we relied on MYOB AccountEdge for our accounting, and it made sense for Tonya to handle everything within the app, which could also print checks on our blanks. I still remember her sitting down with the stack of envelopes and a little tube she could use to moisten the glue strips because she hated licking 25 envelopes.
After we sold Take Control to Joe Kissell, the number of people we had to pay each month dropped to just TidBITS writers. Tonya kept writing checks for a while but eventually discovered that the CFCU credit union where we bank allowed her to do direct deposit payments via ACH (Automated Clearing House, a system banks use to transfer funds electronically) using a free service called Popmoney. Its interface was old and ugly, but it did what it promised, and direct deposits made life easier for our writers, who didn’t need to handle physical checks. Plus, before Tonya moved to direct deposits, a check would occasionally go missing or be ignored for a while, and resolving such issues generated even more work for her.
Throughout all this, I was largely and blissfully ignorant of the payment mechanics. However, once Tonya got a job at Cornell and we moved our financial books to Xero (see “Switching to Xero from AccountEdge,” 10 May 2021), she delegated all the regular payroll work to me. That’s when I discovered that Popmoney had an odd limitation of $1000 per day. If we had multiple payments that exceeded $1000, we had to schedule some of them for the future. It wasn’t just the next day—Popmoney wouldn’t let us schedule the additional payments until the first ones had time to clear, usually 3 business days.
I realize this sounds like a first-world problem, but for a while, the Popmoney interface made me guess which date would be open for payments. That was annoying and forced me to pick who would get paid later and alert them separately as to when the money would arrive. The limitation made no sense—these were ACH transfers we were initiating from our account to known people, so it seemed unnecessary for CFCU or Popmoney to protect us from spending too much. I tried to get the limit raised, but CFCU’s support referred me to Popmoney, and then Popmoney said it was a CFCU setting, and I eventually gave up.
My problem was eventually “solved” by CFCU dropping Popmoney entirely, with a vague claim that it would be replaced in the future. (That hasn’t happened yet.) We considered moving to another bank that offered such a service, but that’s more easily said than done, given how many auto-deposits and auto-withdrawals we have.
Instead, we started looking for a third-party service that would allow us to send ACH payments to our writers. They tended to be expensive, such as the case-challenged Bill (compare its lowercase logo to its uppercase text branding), which charges $45 per month. I’m not opposed to paying for such a service, but it wasn’t worth much to prevent me from having to write four or five checks per month.
Then we found Melio, which promises ACH payments for free and has no transaction limits (banks may have their own). Melio makes its money by charging for rush payments, credit card payments, paper checks, and what are essentially payment loans. While those upsell opportunities are always visible in the interface, there’s no problem with using it purely with ACH for free. Note that Melio doesn’t do wire transfers.
Using Melio to pay people is simple after a one-time account setup and configuration step to connect your bank account. First, you create a vendor for each person, which requires a company name and optional contact name, email address, and phone number. The email address may be optional, but it’s necessary if you want Melio to send them email requesting their bank information to set up the ACH connection. You can also import vendors using a simple CSV file that collects the same information.
Everyone I pay regularly said entering the necessary routing and account numbers to receive payments was easy, although they were all in the US. When I looked into paying Kirk McElhearn, who lives in the UK, I found that Melio supports international payments, but that requires getting the recipient’s SWIFT or IBAN number and costs $20 per transaction. (I resorted to PayPal to pay Kirk for a recent article.)
Once you have your vendors set up, you create bills to pay. Because I’m paying only a handful of people a variable amount once per month, that’s most easily done by hand. Melio also lets you upload a PDF invoice or image, then parses it to create a bill, which is quite slick, or you can sync with QuickBooks. A quick search revealed that there’s also a Melio Payments integration with Xero, but reviews suggest it has synchronization problems. I don’t need more integration with Xero than seeing the payment come out of my CFCU checking account, so I haven’t looked into that more.
Creating a manual payment is easy, if a little chatty, with a six-step process that collects small amounts of information at each step.
- Enter the vendor name, amount, payment frequency, and due date. I always choose the next day as the due date, even though I know that won’t be the date the money actually transfers, as you’ll see.
- Specify how you want to fund the payment. Again, funding the payment from your bank account is free; the other options trigger a charge.
- Set when you want the payment to be deducted. Regardless of when you said it should be due, Melio gives you the upsell option of deducting right away for a fee. I always go for the free 3 business days option.
- Enter an optional memo. I’m a sucker for metadata, even though I haven’t noticed any benefit to entering information here.
- Confirm the details of everything you’ve entered so far to ensure you haven’t made a mistake.
- Acknowledge that you’re done.
Melio’s chattiness extends to email, too. Immediately after you schedule a payment, you receive an email confirming it, and once the funds transfer, Melio sends you another message telling you that the payment has been processed successfully. You can turn off different types of notifications.
However, Melio’s notifications and other options would likely be welcome for larger companies. You can add collaborators with admin, accountant, or contributor permissions. Payment approval workflows let organizations decide who needs to approve payments and can even separate them by payment size, so, for instance, the CEO would approve payments over $1000 and the office manager everything smaller.
I’m ignoring the other half of Melio’s feature set, which offers a similarly simple approach to getting paid. You can create customers and invoices, and when you link your bank account, your customers’ payments flow in directly. On this side, too, Melio provides the option for you to get paid earlier in exchange for a 1% transaction fee. I’ve long used Stripe when I’ve needed to generate invoices for occasional consulting or other work, but I might try Melio next time to see if its promise of free ACH transactions pans out or if people prefer to pay using credit cards.
Finally, I’ve focused on the Melio website here, but the free Melio iPhone app appears to provide the same capabilities for creating vendors and making payments (but not getting paid), with the advantage of letting you use the iPhone camera to scan invoices. The app also lets you track what you’ve done, so it might be worth downloading even if you plan to set up most of your payments on a computer.
Other payment services may also offer ACH payments for free, but I have no complaints about Melio that would encourage me to switch. My only slight concern is that I would prefer Melio to offer two-factor authentication for its website in addition to the two-step verification that it employs at account setup. (The iPhone app does allow biometric login using Face ID or Touch ID.) Otherwise, the company’s security stance sounds good.
If you need to make regular payments to contractors, freelancers, or other small businesses, I encourage you to try Melio.