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"Ugh, really? Shall I deposit this check before or after I churn the day's butter?"

How Do You Write and Cash Checks? Asking for a Friend.

I grew up in an era where checks were a completely normal and necessary part of everyday life. I wrote and cashed them frequently when I was a little kid—especially around Girl Scout Cookie season, trying to square the orders of all my neighbors.

Because yes, I used to sell Girl Scout Cookies the old fashioned way. I’d leave my family home, on foot, in the dead of winter, to walk aimlessly around my neighborhood, alone and unsupervised, ringing random doorbells, initiating conversations with strangers, accepting their invitations to come inside. Might as well have been helping them move couches, and answering persistent questions about my dress size.

Now if I want my Thin Mint fix, I gotta go to the grocery store awning and talk to a bunch of moms because the eponymous Girls are sitting in the car because it’s too cold and they need to charge their phones. Oh the times, they are a’changing!

It says a lot about the pace of financial technology that now, checks have become a chore. When somebody hands me a paper check, I’m like, “Ugh, really? Shall I deposit this before or after I churn the day’s butter?” They’re dinosaurs barely holding on to relevance. Like Adam Sandler.

But they come up just enough that you need to know how they work.

Wait, what the heck even is a check?

A check is a lil’ slip of paper that promises a set amount of money from one person or institution to another. That’s it.

Let’s say your grandma writes you a $20 birthday check (thanks, g-maw). The check basically says: “I, Your Grandma, authorize my bank to take $20 out of my account and move it into your account at your bank.”

In ancient times, after the Gauls had hunted the last aurochs to extinction but before the American taxpayers funded the creation of the internet, checks were really important. In fact, they were an amazing innovation. They allowed people to transfer money easily without carrying big piles of cash around. My parents and grandparents paid for almost everything with checks. At their all time high, 86% of non-cash payments were made via personal checks.

Why are checks still a thing?

The need for checks is disappearing today for a few reasons.

  • Cash is easier to get and safer to carry than it’s ever been.
  • Credit and debit cards process fund transfers at stores much quicker.
  • Online payment apps and services (like PayPal or Venmo) are both widespread and convenient.
  • There’s less risk for fraud all around when things are verified instantly and digitally.

But checks are still A Thing because they have a few outstanding benefits.

  • Though slower and analogue, they’re pretty dang universal.
  • You don’t need any infrastructure to process a check payment, like a card reader or a smart phone—you just need a bank account.
  • Because it’s an established system, the risks of check-related fraud are well known.
  • Once you own a book of checks, they’re free to use. This is unlike many cards and transfer systems, which tack on a percentage usage charge.

How to get some damn checks

To get checks, you need a checking account. A checking account is one of the most basic kinds of financial services offered by financial institutions—almost anyone will let you open one.

Checks themselves come in little books. You will likely get one (or a few) when you open your account. If you don’t, check your bank’s website. They should offer a way to order them. When they arrive, they will probably look something like this:

Weirdly enough, third party vendors can also sell checks. Unlike a new $100 bill (which now looks like a flat, rectangular Terminator), there aren’t many fancy security features printed into the check. So pretty much anyone can do it, as long as they have your correct information. They don’t have to come directly from your bank.

The prices may be better, or worse—but it’s usually a difference of a few dollars either way. As far as I can tell, the only reason people buy them from a third party is because said third party is willing to print horses on them. Like these beauties I found on PetChecksDirect.com:

Oh my.

Ohhhhh yes.

U-U-U-UNICORN CHECKS?!

BURN THE DEFAULT.

BUY ALL THE HORSE CHECKS.

How to write a check

If you want to write a check, there are six things you need to fill out.

1. Pay to the Order of

If you’re paying a person, write their name. If you’re paying a business, write their name. If you’re not sure what to write, search for something that says “please make checks payable to…” or ask “who should I make it out to?”

2. Date

Today’s date.

3. Dollar Amount

The amount of money you want to pay, written as regular old numbers.

4. Dollar Amount Written Out

It’s pretty easy to misread a sloppy, handwritten 4 for a 9, or a 1 for a 7. It’s also not too hard for an unscrupulous person to try to tack on an extra zero. To verify the written amount, you write it out in full words. A lot of people draw a line to the end to ensure “and also a million dollars” isn’t squeezed in.

5. Memo

This is optional. You don’t have to fill it out at all. If you’re paying a bill, write your account number or invoice number to help them assign the payment properly. It can also be a note to yourself, to remind yourself what this check was for.

6. Signature

Your signature.

When you’re done, it will look like this:

Tah-dah!

How to cash a check

So let’s say you’re Mr. Trustworthy in my above example, and you’ve just received this enchanting check.

1. Endorse it

Flip the check over on its back. You’ll see a line (sometimes a rather faint one), sometimes with an X or an “endorse here” instruction. Just sign on that line, and boom, you’ve endorsed it! It might looks something like this:

How to endorse a check

Why do we endorse checks? What does it actually mean? Well, checks are little legal documents. Both parties sign to demonstrate that it has passed through their person, and that they have both assented to this exchange of money.

2. Deposit it to your bank

You do not need checks or a checking account to deposit a check. You just need any kind of basic bank account—a savings account works fine.

At time of writing, there are two ways to deposit. One is to go to your bank, in person, and give it to them along with a deposit slip.

The easier way is to submit it using your bank’s online app. Most banks now offer apps that let you photograph the front and back of the check and deposit it digitally. Once the process is complete, you can rip up the check and recycle it. But wait until it’s fully confirmed, which may take up to a few days. If the photograph is blurry, or you forgot to endorse it, they may reject it and ask you to submit it again.

That’s it!

Alternatives to checks

Are ya in a pinch? Did somebody ask you to write them a check, and you don’t have any? That’s okay! Here are some alternatives.

1. Counter checks

If you don’t have any personal checks, and you don’t have time to order some, your bank might have you covered. Stride confidently to the teller and ask for a counter check. They’re basically just blank checks.

Bring your ID and a few bucks, just in case. Many banks will give you a couple for free, but others charge a $1 or $2 convenience fee.

2. Cashier’s checks

Cashier’s checks are a more secure form of check.

When Gram-Gram sends you that smoking hot $20 birthday check, it is entirely on her own recognizance. Her signature is an ephemeral promise that she has $20, and she’ll give it to you. It isn’t guaranteed in any way by the bank itself.

If she wrote you a cashier’s check, however, the bank guarantees the transaction. They would peek inside her checking account, confirm that she has $20, and hold that $20 for the express purpose of paying you.

For this reason, cashier’s checks are a pretty good way to buy large things from private individuals. When I bought my last car through Craigslist, I paid Car-Having Internet Stranger with a cashier’s check. It’s safer for me than showing up in a parking lot with $7,000 in cash. And it’s safer for Car-Having Internet Stranger, because he knows the check is as good as cash.

Cashier’s checks cost a few more dollars—usually around $10. And they can only be obtained from a teller at the bank, in-person. Again, bring your ID.

Warning: checks can be dangerous

Do not write checks for amounts of money you don’t currently have in your account. When you do this, it’s known as bouncing a check. At best, this is an embarrassing faux pas. At worst, this could get you into legal trouble.

And don’t ever fake someone’s signature or forge a check. In some states this is a fucking felony. And we treat felons nnnnnnot great!

If someone writes you a check and it bounces, you’re guaranteed to be inconvenienced, if not wholly SOL. So don’t accept them as payment unless you know and trust the check writer. There are lots of check-related forms of fraud and scams. So watch your butt, especially if you’re buying and selling online. I’ve gotten scam communications that were barely coherent, and others that were really polished and reasonable-sounding. Candy and checks are both better when they don’t come from strangers.

I hope everyone feels older and wiser. Because writing about checks has definitely made me feel older!

Please tell me which animal YOU want  to see on your checks. Just so we’re clear, horses and horse-adjacent fantasy creatures are not the only correct answer… But they are the most correct.

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16 thoughts to “How Do You Write and Cash Checks? Asking for a Friend.”

  1. Red Panda checks plz.
    I’ve always had to pay rent via check, and only had to ask my mother twice how to fill them out, right at first. Woo!
    I also just became a landlord, though, and I’m trying to figure out if there is a better way. I don’t mind checks, but sometimes they are a bit cumbersome.

  2. I go with a third-party vendor because they’re usually cheaper than the bank and I can use cash back shopping sites for it. Alas, I didn’t opt for the horsies. I went with the closest to boring-old-blue-security checks I could find. Which are still a tad frou frou for my purposes, but I’ll take cheap and frou frou over pricey and dull.

  3. I was hired at the tender age of 17 for my first job ever. I was an actor at a small summer theater on an island, playing Laurie in Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon at a small professional theater that went bankrupt two weeks into the run of our show. I learned a lot about job having and also check depositing, including:

    1. If you ever work for a company that goes bankrupt, you take that check to the bank RIGHT NOW! Not like in a week when you get around to it! Okay? Because that $50 that you were paid for the week (I told you I learned a lot about working in the theater) will not be in their account anymore, and your bank may even charge YOU for depositing a bad check. Which feels wicked unfair. Like most bank fees.

    Anyway, this advice may seem obvious, but in my youthful optimism, I not only made an impassioned statement at a board meeting that our show was so good, that surely with just a few more flyers at public libraries we could sell enough tickets to save the theater; I also assumed that a paycheck meant that the money was guaranteed to be there, bankruptcy or no. It most assuredly was not.

    2. If you ever have reason to believe that someone has written you a check but might not have enough funds in the account for you to deposit it, you can ask to verify funds. How to do this: you don’t go to YOUR bank, you call or go to the bank of the person/business who wrote you the check. I hear that it’s not guaranteed whether they will tell you, but I have had success with this in the past.

    I ask them to verify funds, i.e. is there enough in the account to pay this check? If they say yes, I would either deposit immediately. Or, if you’re in person at their bank, you can ask them to cash the check right then and there even if you don’t have an account at that bank. Here’s a how-to I found that basically reflects what I’ve experienced: https://www.thebalance.com/how-to-check-a-check-315428

    Welp! Now I feel old, too. #oldmillenialsunite <3

    P.S. dear BGR, a possible future topic for your queue: A primer on bankruptcy, and What It Is, Even? Feels like one of those things that most folks don't know about it unless they've encountered it.

    1. These are all good tips!

      I can’t promise we will ever write extensively about bankruptcy. Neither of us have personal experience in filing for bankruptcy, and it’s a tremendously complex and weighty decision with a long-lasting impact on multiple areas of one’s life. But we will at least try to do a baby primer with links out to better resources!

  4. I was kind of surprised as to your note that “almost anyone” will let you open a bank account given my (outsider’s) understanding that there are unbanked and, maybe more importantly, underbanked folks in the U.S. who actually may not be easily able to get a bank account…

  5. The first local bank I had an account with gave me probably 6 books of checks and one of those vinyl covers for free. I was in high school, and used fewer than 10 of the first book. The second bank I used charged me 10 bucks for a single book, I used them to pay rent for 6 months, and that was it. The first bank I remember fondly (even though their interest rates sucked) and the second I feel a vague resentment towards (though that’s also the fees I had a hard time avoiding.) Now I have no checks and hope not to need them.

  6. I still use checks pretty often actually! I always carry a book around with me, and I just ordered a ton more last fall. I use a few a month because I pretty much never have cash on hand and individuals typically don’t take card. 😉 With mobile check deposit, I don’t think it’s too much of an inconvenience any way. And I’m old and crotchety enough I am not downloading another damn app so you can “Venmo” me some money!

  7. As a bank teller, I’d like to share a few additions, some of which have already been commented on:

    1. For the love of everything decent, if you’re the one writing the check, write out the amount LEGIBLY! It’s a royal pain when we can barely read the numbers AND can’t tell what the heck you wrote on the legal line (the line where you write out the amount in words).

    2. If there’s a difference between the amount on the legal line and the amount in the box, banks are required to go by the legal line. So if someone hands you a check as payment for something, take a moment to look and make sure the amounts match. It’ll save both you and us a lot of headaches if you catch the error before getting to the bank.

    3. To reinforce what’s already been said, if you have ANY doubts about whether the check is any good, your best bet is to go to that bank (most of the time, the check is written on a local bank) with your ID and ask to cash it right then. If they refuse, you were either given a hot check (where the funds aren’t in the account) or the person was an absolute jerk and ordered the bank to not pay the check (aka a “stop payment order”).

    4. In my experience, locally owned smaller banks will have no problem verifying funds on a check, but most large nation-wide banks won’t verify funds over the phone. You can still try, but don’t be surprised if that’s the answer you get.

    5. If a check you received is a large amount, especially if the bank is unable to verify the check, the bank may place a hold on the check. Depending on the size of the check, it can be between 2-7 business days. This is to protect both the bank and you, so that if you’re given a bad check, you don’t spend all that money just to have the check return unpaid and end up in a nightmare of overdraft charges and your account in the negative.

    6. With it being that time of year again, I feel compelled to say this: if you’re expecting a tax refund and already have a bank account, I HIGHLY recommend having your refund set up as a direct deposit. Once it hits your account, you have immediate access to your money. If you get a paper check, you’ll most likely have the check placed on (you guessed it) a hold of 2-7 business days, and depending on your bank, they may also charge you a fee of some percentage if you don’t keep a certain amount in your account.

    One caveat: federal regulations have started getting more stringent and enforced. If you file jointly with your spouse and the account only has one person’s name on it? The money will be sent back. Same goes for anyone trying to use a different person’s account to receive their tax refund (usually done when the person in question doesn’t have a bank account at all). Seen it before, and why the heck anyone would trust friends or family with several thousand dollars is beyond me.

    And last but not least, possibly THE most important bit of wisdom I can impart:

    7. If you receive a random check in the mail that you’re not expecting, look at it closely. Usually it would be accompanied with a letter requesting some money back from it. I know, this screams “SCAM” to me too, but I’ve seen several customers in this situation. Look for typos, lack of a business/bank logo, the font of the printed words on the check. Try Googling the routing number on the check and see if it matches the bank, or Google the address from the “company” it’s supposedly from. If it fails any of these tests, it’s a pretty safe bet the check is fake. But it’s important to take it to your bank anyway and inform them, so they can watch out for any other checks similar to that one and protect other customers as well.

    I had a customer that received a bogus check once. The company listed in the letter was completely different than the check, along with the city and state they were supposedly from. The check and letter were full of typos, misspellings, and capitalization and grammar errors, while the font of the address on the check looked like someone had printed it at home. A quick Google search of the address of the “company” pulled up the street view of a townhouse somewhere in the NYC area.

    So yeah…I know that was long as heck, but hopefully it’s helpful!

    1. I forgot one more thing, lol.

      When ordering checks for yourself, do not, I repeat DO NOT, have your driver’s license number printed on your checks! Keep the info as minimal as possible. Name and address are required, phone numbers are kind of questionable. Having your DL number on your checks may seem convenient when using a check to pay for groceries, clothes, gas, etc…but if your checks are ever stolen, it makes it that much easier for the thief to use them, because 99% of the time, if the DL number is printed on the checks, the cashier at the store won’t bother to ask for the person’s ID, which is the easiest way to catch fraud BEFORE it hits your bank account.

  8. I had ONE monthly bill (my HOA) that I still wrote and mailed a check to pay – but thankfully last year they implemented the ability to pay online – so I now use checks exclusively to pay repair persons who show up at my house.

    I will point out though – if you are Mr Trustworthy and you receive the above example check – once you have endorsed it by signing on the back – if you LOSE that check – ANYONE can cash it in.

    Safer, is, if you are going to deposit it into your account anyway, don’t sign the back – instead – write

    FOR DEPOSIT ONLY TO THE ACCOUNT OF:
    MR TRUSTWORTHY
    000-000-0000

    where 000-000-0000 is your bank account number

    1. Good point! I only ever endorse when I’m already at the counter at the bank–or sitting at my kitchen table actively depositing it through an app, so it just doesn’t come up for me… But if you accept checks frequently and wait to deposit them, this is a very good best practice to follow!

  9. This is a great and timely article for me! I recently changed apartments and my landlord wanted three post-dated cheques for the first three months rent as a guarantee. I knew I had some somewhere in the deep recesses of my closet, but I had no idea where. I finally found my chequebook that had four left in them from when I was 16 (I am now 30)! My landlords are a young couple renting their old place for the first time, and while the rest of the year’s rent will be done by direct deposit, clearly they felt that cheques were the safest choice for them and for us – I suspect parental advice was in there somewhere.
    It’s important for us to remember how even credit cards were a burden only a few years ago. I remember shopping at Sears (!) with my mom in Vancouver, BC, and she brought out the credit card to purchase my sweet back to school clothes. The lady behind the counter brought out an enormous machine that had to take an imprint of my mom’s card, and she had to manually fill in a form, and then I have no idea what happened after. It seemed so tedious and probably helped more people from overspending simply because it was a pain in the rear. Nowadays with tapping and chip and pin it feels so effortless that we may as well keep doing it. I love it, but it took a steep learning curve for me to get there!

  10. I’m not sure you meant it this way, because I’m in a part of the country that is significantly less cold than other parts, so you might have been literally commenting on the temperature, but your opening bit about Girl Scouts Nowadays sounds a lot like the sort of Millennial bashing you usually rightfully decry. It struck me as odd coming from you. Kids these days and their phones.

  11. I fuckin love this post.

    I have whales all over my checks and i still use them despite my old address from 5 years ago. I just cross it out and write my current address on it. I’m second guessing myself on if its appropriate but hey i paid good money and my bank info has never changed lol im gooooood for it

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