American households have more bills to contend with than ever before.

And since very few of us are lucky enough that all our bills arrive within a few days of each other, it's very easy to make an error and send a payment in late. The result is the charge of a late fee, sometimes as high as $50, or a penalty interest charge, which can be 20 pecent or higher.

But don't simply pay the fine and resolve to do better next time. If you are a customer in good standing and this is the first time you've been late, the company will often waive the fee if you call a customer representative and request it.

Of course most companies are only willing to forgive a fee once. Don't attempt to turn this into a fallback strategy for you to avoid paying bills promptly. And remember to treat representatives respectfully — you will always catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Bankrate.com has some tips on how to make sure that your payments go through as soon as possible in the future:

— Always use the billing company's preprinted envelope.

— Include the billing coupon, and be sure to write the amount being paid in the box provided.

— Make sure your checks are legible and that the payment amount is correct.

— Double-check that you have both signed your check and written the account number on the check.

— Mail your payment at least one week in advance of the due date to insure that it will get there on time.