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:
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. And 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?”
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.
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.
When you’re done, it will look like this:
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:
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.
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.