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Paper checks used to drive the personal economy. You got paid with a check. You sent your landlord a check. When you opened Grandma's birthday card, you shook the check out of the envelope. Now, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, consumers use checks for only 7% of transactions overall. The most likely uses are high-dollar payments for utilities, rent, charitable donations, government taxes and fees, and business contractors. Buying a car? You may want to use a check for your down payment or purchase.
Check writers tend to be older, and plenty of young people have never written a paper check. With so much of our personal finances being done electronically nowadays, payment cards and mobile payment apps have become the norm—not only are they typically faster, they're more convenient and secure as well. But checks are still a perfectly legitimate way to pay and be paid. If you have the occasion to write a check and could use a quick primer on check writing, check security, check alternatives and check cashing, read on.
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Check
Grab your checkbook and follow these steps (not necessarily in this order):
- Fill in the date.
- Add the recipient's full name. If you're not sure what to write, ask the person or organization who to make out the check to.
- Write in the numerical dollar amount you wish to pay. Example: $452.78.
- Spell out the amount in the line below. Example: Four hundred fifty-two dollars and 78 cents.
- Add a note on the memo line, if you'd like. The space for notes is in the bottom left-hand corner. Use this space to show what you're paying for, such as "Invoice #3643" or "July Rent." These are for your reference only and the bank doesn't pay attention to them, but they can help your recordkeeping.
- Sign your full name as it appears at the top of the check.
These steps are easy, but it's important to be accurate. Don't rush it, or make guesses—if you forget to sign, misspell the recipient's name or err when writing in the dollar amount, your recipient may have trouble cashing your check or you may have other difficulties.
How to Keep Your Checks Secure
Writing someone's name and a dollar amount on a piece of paper might seem like an odd, antiquated way to pay, especially compared to the convenient security of mobile payments and EMV chip cards. Is writing a check really safe?
For the most part checks are secure, but make sure to follow some basic safety practices:
- Always fill it out using a pen. Otherwise, someone so inclined could erase what you've written and write in new information.
- Don't give anyone a literal blank check. Sign your checks only after writing in the recipient's name and dollar amount.
- Void the check if you make a mistake. You may also be asked to provide a voided check to set up online payments. In blue or black ink, write the word VOID across the entire check and in each entry line. When you're done with the check, tear it up or shred it.
- Deliver checks securely. If you leave an envelope with your check enclosed on your mailbox for pickup, a thief can steal it. Then they have your name, address, account number and signature, which they may then use to commit fraud in your name. Drop checks directly into the mailbox, preferably at the post office.
- Stop payment on a check if it's lost or you think it's fallen into the wrong hands. Contact your bank and ask them to place a stop payment, which will cost you a few dollars.
- Shred checks instead of discarding them as is. You don't want the personal and account information on your checks to be stolen.
How Do You Cash a Check?
The tables have turned and you've received a check payment. How do you convert that check into actual money?
If you have a bank account, you can cash your check or deposit it into your account. Simply endorse the check in the space indicated. Write your account number and "for deposit only" underneath your signature ("for mobile deposit only" if you're using a mobile app to make a remote deposit) if you're planning to deposit the money. You can make your deposit in a branch, at an ATM or on your mobile phone if you have your bank's mobile app. Some checks may clear instantly, but many require a few days to post to your account. Check with your bank for posting times if your deposit is urgent.
Don't have a bank account? Try cashing the check at the issuing bank listed on the front of the check. Many will cash a check written by an account holder, possibly with a small fee. Grocery stores and big box retailers such as Walmart also may offer check cashing services, and they're typically less expensive than check-cashing stores.
Alternatives to Writing a Check
Checks are a viable payment option, but they're rarely the only option. Using one of the following alternatives may be faster, more convenient or more secure.
- Online payments: Use your bank's online bill pay service or a money transfer service like PayPal if your payee accepts online payments.
- Mobile payment apps: Zelle, Venmo, PayPal and Cash App are all ways to send person-to-person payments securely by phone.
- Money orders: A money order is like a check but you don't need a checking account to write one. Instead, you can purchase money orders for a small fee from your bank, credit union, post office or many grocery and convenience stores. Since they aren't linked to your bank account and don't show personal information, they can be more secure than a personal check. If a money order is lost or stolen, however, it may take a month or longer to replace it or get your money back.
- Credit or debit cards: If you're paying in person, you may be able to use your credit or debit card, even on a large transaction. Check with your card issuer on transaction limits and let them know if you're planning a large transaction. Credit card transactions typically have buyer protections built in that may be valuable if you're making a large purchase. If you do decide to use a credit card for a large transaction, make sure to monitor how it affects your credit utilization, as even if your card can accommodate the cost, it may drag down your credit scores. Also, keep in mind that the interest rates on credit cards tend to be high; pay off your balance quickly to prevent interest from adding to your cost.
The Bottom Line
In all likelihood, check writing will eventually go the way of the dodo, but having the ability to write a check—and, more pointedly, having a checking account—is still a common expectation of modern adults. You can open a checking account at any bank or credit union. You'll get a small supply of checks you can use to launch your check-writing journey—and a debit card you can use for that large majority of transactions that don't require a paper check.