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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): Dumb Move - Paying Belgian Bills

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dumb Move - Paying Belgian Bills

Yes, this post is DRY stuff, but you need to know it if you're going to live in Belgian...so pay attention!

Imagine my horror when I logged onto our online Belgian bank and saw three credits....three credits for what?  Why do those amounts look familiar?  Oh CRAP....those are three bill amounts I THOUGHT I had paid last month....what happened????  Here's now to make sure it doesn't happen to you and other things you really need to know to pay your Belgian bills and to access your money.

A few weeks after you move into your new home, you'll start getting your bills....in French....Google Translator comes in very handy, or if you feel like hoofing it, you can head over to either ACS or the American Housing Office on SHAPE to ask what the stacks of paper have to say.

If you're like most NATO folks here, you'll be getting a bill from Electrabel, our electric and gas company.  You should be getting this one monthly.  Be sure your home has a carbon monoxide detector if you have gas heating.  If you don't have one, don't worry...you can get one for about 50 euro at the local Media Markt.  The PX only seems to have smoke detectors.

Depending on what commune you live in, you'll get a bill from them, showing what your water bill is.  This bill will come either every other month or every third month.  A commune is not what you think...it's the Belgian version of a county or municipality, so your local government.

Now remember, these particular bills are ESTIMATES of USAGE....but you still have to pay them.  You see, the meter man (from an independent meter reading company) will come by your home, once a year, to get the meter readings (each meter will get read separately and on different days of the year).  You'll get a special card in the mail to either fill out the numbers yourself (which you can call in, mail in or put in the window by your front door on the specified date)....or, you can let the meter reader in on the date they are supposed to come by.  Each commune does it on a different day of the year, so you can just be moving in and already have to do it the month you arrive like we did, or 11 months later!

The good and the bad with the meters being read early....if you had energy hogs living in your place before you, you are going to be paying for their usage and not yours....until you have been there awhile, get the meters read again and get your amounts readjusted....again, once a year only, it's going to reflect THEIR usage.  The American Housing Office did say if you think the amounts are way out there, you can call and get the amount readjusted.

How do you know what YOU are using and what it costs?  The housing office will give you a chart to record your meter readings, and then a typical amount of what a unit of each costs...and then you multiply the amounts and see what comes out.  The opposite holds true too...if you think you are not paying enough and don't want a big bill at the end of the year.  Imagine the little old Belgian lady who may have lived in your home before you.  At the end of the year, you'll either get money back because you overpaid, or you'll owe because you underpaid....so PLEASE don't think the money you get for your utility payments is FREE extra money....you may need it at the end of the year and owe thousands of Euros, IF you have been underpaying!

We are basically hosed here, because we had a Canadian family with two teenagers living in our home before us.  What does this mean?  One....teenagers use a lot of water...they leave lights on, and the kicker....the Canadian military folks stationed over here don't have to bother tracking their utility usage because their government PAYS FOR IT DIRECTLY!  Our predecessors couldn't even tell us, around how much they used per month of anything....to include municipal trashbags....more fodder for another blog post on how they do trash collecting over here....not like the US.

What other bills might you see?  Well, if you have TV, internet and phone, most likely, you'll get a bill from Voo.com (the new guy in town) or the old warhorse, Belgacom, that is known for its "customer no-service" unfortunately, but I think they are trying to change that image.  We personally have Voo, which ended up being much cheaper than Belgacom, with many more channels, many in English and with a DVR thrown in, not to mention a combo deal with phone and the fastest internet connection available.  Be sure to check if they service your town or village, as Voo is not in all areas yet.  Also realize, that whichever company you choose, do not use the lowest level of internet service...the download speeds are too slow, plus, we Americans tends to upload/download beyond the monthly usage allowed for those low-cost options.  You'll end up with your internet cut off or huge overage charges before you know it!  Either way, compare the two before you make any decisions and know what is even available in your area where you live.

If you have more than one vehicle, you'll also get a bill for road taxes sent to your spouse's work address...depending on how big your second vehicle is that you registered.  It can be anywhere from 150 to over a thousand Euro....A YEAR...the larger the engine, the bigger chunk you'll pay.  I don't know if the money goes directly back into the roads, but the weather here seems to keep the roads in a constant state of repair.  Needless to say, ALWAYS make sure your second registered vehicle is the smaller one!

Let me think....I think that's all the bills we've gotten so far.....with our rent, we obviously don't get a bill, just pay it the first of the month every month with online banking through our local Belgian bank.

As a sidenote, some folks will have oil tanks with their homes, instead of gas.  This means that they need to keep an eye on their gauge to see how much is in there...don't laugh...I've seen a family run out of oil or MAZOUT, as it is called here and wonder why they didn't have any hot water.  You want to make sure you are all full up before the winter too.  Some landlords will include the amount in your rent, or you pay them directly or you have to arrange to get the tank filled yourself.  To save money, fill it in the summer months and try to get together with your neighbors, so you can all get filled at the same time...you'll get a discount for that typically.

So how do you pay these bill people?  You can either cash your American check (from your stateside account) at the Finance Cash cage and carry the cash to whatever office is on the bill (not a good idea....a few are in Brussels and not nearby, although you may find a branch office near Mons).  Or easier....take the cash and pay at any Belgian post office.  Belgian post offices, like in Germany, are also banks.  Not only can you pay your Belgian bills there, but you can also open an account with them.  There is also one conveniently located on SHAPE.  Better....open up an account with a Belgian bank.  Fortis is the most popular bank and used to have the contract on SHAPE, and that's why most Shapians are with them.  Now, since this summer, it is Monte Paschi, an Italian bank that has been doing business in Belgium since the 1940s and Fortis is no longer on post, which has created a hassle for some...having to drive to a Fortis branch office off post (and not directly nearby).

With that Belgian account, you can take your dollars (yes dollars, because you get a better rate depositing dollars rather than cashing dollars and converting them to Euros at the Finance Cash cage).....to Monte Paschi (or Fortis, or whatever Belgian bank you want to use as there are also others) and deposit it there into your Euro account.

Monte Paschi gives you online access to your account, and a little electronic keypad called a Digipass, to pay your bills online.  You memorize a code to put in the Digipass, and it'll spit out a unique code that you can only use with one unique transaction online.  It generates a new number every time you put in your code....each number can only be used once.  Lose your Digipass and you lose your ability to pay bills online, even though you know your user name and password to access the account online.

When entering your bill info online, you can even save the vendor/bill info for next time.  Type in the address from your bill (check the orange and white form attached to your bill...that's where all the important info is)....who the bill is being paid to (Voo, Belgacom, etc) and pay attention here....this is how you write the account # below.

On your bill, you will see a # that looks like this:

BE32210044400083 ("compte beneficiare" on the orange and yellow form)

When typing the account # into your computer, leave out the first four characters, so in this case, BE32.  The account # you are entering should have the last 12 digits only!  I found this out the hard way when I had bills bouncing back.

Remember that Europeans use a comma in place of a period!!!!!  So 240,16 Euro is actually "Two hundred and forty euro and sixteen cents"!  You don't want to screw that up....so pay attention there too.

Somewhere on the first sheet of your bill, you'll see something that says "memo" or fakture # or something that will single out this bill as yours for this particular time period.  Put that in the memo section so the biller knows which bill exactly you are paying.

And that about wraps up bill paying!  ALWAYS keep copies of bills you paid, regardless of how you paid them.  For your entire time stationed here, you need to be able to prove you paid a bill....it can happen where they said you didn't pay, when you did!  As a last comment, don't ever ignore anything you get in the mail.  Be smart enough to at least use Google Translate to figure out the gist of the mail you got...and if still in doubt, go to the housing office or ACS for translation help.What have you learned about Belgian bills?



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5 Comments:

Blogger H said...

Great information! We arrive at SHAPE in less than two weeks...I've bookmarked this. Thank you!

September 21, 2010 at 11:53 PM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

Great! Just be sure to let me know if I left anything out....it's funny how you forget even after you've only been here a few months!

September 22, 2010 at 7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great information. Moved here recently with my husband as well and life is so much harder (as expected) We've already learned some things the "hard way." I think people here are freindly to their locals, but as soon as you speak English, their demeanor changes.

September 22, 2010 at 9:15 PM  
Anonymous susanna said...

This is your 2nd or even 3rd post about bills in Belgium and EVERYTIME there is NEW information you have. This could be your thesis for a doctorate!! Great info, Raquel, keep it coming!
Hugs.
Susanna

November 9, 2010 at 4:01 PM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

That is because the bills ARE so confusing around here! Appreciate your "Germanness" and embrace it!

November 9, 2010 at 5:01 PM  

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