Wednesday, June 15, 2005

paying the bills and carlos slim

Much like when I was living in the States, here in Mexico, I'm regularly confronted with a pile of bills to pay. I've got my electric bill, my water bill, my phone bill; basically the only difference is that here I have no heating bill (like my bro in the east).

But there is also a difference in how I pay my bills here. In the States, I'd sit down each month, write out a separate check to each entity, put a stamp on each envelope, and drop them all in the mail. Here in Mexico, it's actually a bit simpler. Instead of writing checks and mailing my bills individually, I can pay them all at once at the bank. So when I go to deposit my paycheck at the bank, I grab whatever fistful of bills I have outstanding at the moment and pay them at the same time. It's a suprisingly easy and efficient way of doing things.

Of course, part of the reason for this efficient system of bill paying may be that the postal service is so unreliable. If you were to try to mail a check to the phone company here, it might not get there for weeks. In fact, it might not get there at all. And timeliness in paying your bills is crucial here -- you don't get the same grace period you do in the U.S. I was slow to pay my phone bill last month, and so one morning when I picked up my phone to call a friend, instead of a dial tone I got a recording from Telmex telling me: "Your service has been suspended until you pay your bill." Honestly, it had only been a few weeks since the bill had been issued. These guys don't mess around.

A funny thing I also found out recently about my water bill is that it has a statute of limitations for payment. I had temporarily misplaced the most recent water bill, then re-discovered it and brought it to the bank yesterday. The teller was trying to process it for me when she noted that the payment deadline had been May 31. "You can't pay this bill," she said. "It expired May 31 and today is June 3." I asked her what to do, and she said just to wait, that they'd probably send another one or something. But unlike the phone company, in the meantime they haven't turned off my water. Seems like they just should have let me pay the bill.

One somewhat creepy thing about the bill-paying system here is that in addition to banks, you can also pay most of your bills at Sanborn's restaurants. See, Sanborn's is owned by Carlos Slim, the world's fourth-richest man and the owner of just about everything in Mexico, it would seem. Since most of your money just ends up in his pocket anyway, he's developed his own bill payment network that allows you to pay him directly with no middleman. It's almost like we've got this one-man shadow oligarchy in Mexico, which is why, even though I know most of my money goes right to Carlos Slim, I feel a little bit more comfortable paying my bills at the bank rather than Sanborns.

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