Did you just get back the care package you sent to the kids? Did Grandma get your Christmas card on December 29th? Is Visa killing you with late fees because the check you sent on the 13th didn't make it there on the 15th? Well never fear, althorrat is here to show you how to push the envelope (ha, ha) and get your mail where it's going as quickly as possible. Some of the tips below may seem like obvious no-brainers. Rest assured, however, that people break such simple rules all the time. (Incidentally, these tips apply mostly to mail in the United States; I don't know anything about the postal systems of other nations.)

1) Take your mail directly to a "company" post office. In other words, one that is actually run by the Postal Service. Some "post offices" - for instance, those on many university campuses - are completely owned and operated by private companies or organizations, who then send the mail to an actual USPS Post Office. Often enough, they only send their mail once a day to the local post office, where it has to be sorted through again before it can be sent to the central processing center.

Putting mail in outgoing mailboxes can also delay your mail somewhat. Don't get me wrong, in most cases the mail in these boxes will be delivered quickly enough for most purposes; but if time is of the essence, the day or two that your mail may be delayed (depending on when you threw it in the box, when the box is emptied, and how far your town is from the central processing center) may cost you. As an aside, some smaller post offices, lacking the manpower to sort such mail in time for dispatch, will do strange things with mail from these boxes that can cause further delays. (One post office I worked at, for instance, put all mail from these boxes into "target mail" - which is supposed to be for mail that is suspicious.)

If it's too difficult or inconvenient for you to go to the post office, the next best thing is to give it to/leave it for the mail carrier. If you have an old-style mailbox, then obviously you can just put the flag up to let the carrier know that you have outgoing mail. If you have a mailslot, you can clip the mail to the slot door or place it in an adjacent container (make sure to mark it). Outgoing mail slots in most Neighborhood Box Units (NBUs - those big metal boxes with 8 to 24 locked 'cubbyholes') are now blocked off due to frequent theft, but if you prop your letter(s) up against the side of your box and push it to the back, the carrier should pick it up as outgoing.

2) Clearly write or print the return address in the upper-left hand corner, and the delivery address in the center. The reason for this is simple. The vast majority of mail is processed by computerized machines in what is called the Delivery Point System (DPS). The computer scanners use OCR to read addresses when a bar code is not provided. Any piece of mail which the scanners cannot read gets thrown out of the DPS and must be hand-sorted. Even worse, the scanner may misread the address and send your mail somewhere else. In most cases, a mail carrier or clerk will catch this, but it will still mean a delay of several days.

Some companies and organizations use custom labels for 8.5"x11" mail which have their logo and return address printed right above the delivery address. This is a decidedly bad idea. When their mail gets into the DPS, the return address will sometimes be mistaken for the delivery address, because it is (for most intents in purposes) in the center of the envelope. This mail will then be sent back to the post office serving that organization's area, where the error will usually be caught, but again, this will mean a delay of several days.

3) Avoid using or altering envelopes in ways that confuse OCR scanners. Many businesses and organizations use window envelopes, especially for bulk mail or bills. Unfortunately, the plastic sometimes reflects the scanner's laser, causing it to read the return address by mistake or otherwise missending the mail. These businesses and organizations (including the Postal Service!) continue to use them because the relatively few errors are made up for by the lesser cost of mass-producing envelopes. For the average person, however, it's better to just use regular envelopes.

Drawing or putting pictures on envelopes can also sometimes confuse the scanners. Finally, avoid using red ink, as the scanners have a difficult time reading it.

4) Address your mail as accurately as possible. This seems rather obvious, but many people will make mistakes addressing their mail, either through accident or ignorance. Make certain to write the cardinal direction of the address; this will often determine which post office the mail is sent to in any city with more than one post office (and it will help avoid misdelivery). If you're unsure of the state postal code or the ZIP code, check. Writing the full ZIP+4 code may also help expedite your mail's delivery; if you don't know the ZIP+4 code, it can usually be obtained by a search at the US Postal Service website (usps.com). All of these will help ensure that your mail is not misdirected.

5) Make sure you have the correct postage. Any piece of mail weighing over one ounce requires extra postage beyond standard first-class postage for letters. Any first-class mail over 13 ounces must be shipped Priority Mail (see also classes of U.S. mail). Depending on the station, mail with insufficient postage may be sent postage due; otherwise it will be returned to the sender.

6) Do not put stamped mail weighing 16 ounces or more in an outgoing box or mailslot. This is not just a good idea, it's the law. As a result of heightened security proceeding directly from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all non-metered mail over 16 ounces must be brought to a window clerk. Such mail found in a dropbox will be returned to the sender with an "Aviation Security" sticker attached.

7) If all else fails, shell out the cash. All of the above will help your mail get to its destination more quickly; but if it has to be there in the next day or two, there's still a good chance it might not make it in time. In that case, you may want to send the piece Priority Mail (which usually makes its destination within two days) or even Express Mail (which is guaranteed overnight in most cases). You may not want to pay the extra money for it, but if it's a bill payment or something else where time is a factor, it may cost you less in the long run. $13.65 (or whatever the price is at the time you read this) to pay your Discover Card bill on time is probably better than the resulting late fees, interest and damage to your credit if it's late.

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