Guide to Writing a Check
As society has changed, payment methods have evolved to keep up. In the not-too-distant past, cash was used for small, everyday purchases, and checks were written for any expenses larger than the amount of pocket cash a person carried. Credit cards were less frequently used and were often reserved for larger purchases that would be paid over time.
Today, electronic payments are the norm, with credit cards and digital payment services used for expenses of all sizes. But that doesn’t mean that cash and checks aren’t still valuable. A check is an inexpensive way to pay bills or send money to friends and family. When you pay a vendor with a credit card, the payment processing company charges the vendor a fee. That leads some business owners to prefer payments by check. And if you use a digital payment service to send money to a friend, you’ll be charged a fee by the service. Paying by check helps to avoid those fees. If you write checks (or would like to learn to), there are a few key tips to keep in mind.
Overview of the Perfect Check
These are the components of a perfect check. As long as you include each of these elements, you’ll never need to wonder if the information on your check was complete.
- Current Date: In the top right corner, you’ll want to include the current date. This lets the bank know that the check is current and also helps when organizing your checks later.
- Payee: This is the line that starts with “Pay to the order of.” That’s just a fancy way of identifying who the check is meant to pay.
- Amount in Numeric Form: In this box, you’ll write the amount of the check in dollars and cents.
- Amount in Words: To make sure there’s no confusion, write the check amount in words, too. Start writing at the left edge of the underline, and write out the dollar amount in words, including the amount of cents as a fraction. Then, draw a line to take up the rest of the space on the line. If the check amount is $78.62, for instance, you would write “Seventy-eight dollars and 62/100,” followed by a line extending to the right edge of the underline. If the check has the word “dollars” printed at the end of the line, you don’t have to write it, too.
- Signature: Sign your legal name on the signature line. This required step makes the check official and eligible for cashing.
- Memo (or “For”) line: This step isn’t required, but it can be a great way to remind yourself of the check’s purpose. You can always look up a check in your check register, but adding a memo can give you a way to identify a payment at a glance.
After you write the check, record the payment in your check register. You can use a mobile app for this, but it’s often just as easy to write the details in the paper check register included with your checks. That way, you can record the details right away and don’t have to remember to do so later.
Before writing a check, ask yourself a few questions. Is this a purchase you really need to make? If you waited a day, would you still buy it? Is there a better way to make this payment, such as a debit card, credit card, or automatic payment on the vendor’s website?
Record the Payment in Your Check Register
It’s easy to overlook the importance of recording each check in your register. However, it’s a crucial part of the check-writing process. Recording your checks helps to protect you against fees. When you write a check for more than your bank account can cover, that’s called bouncing a check: Bounced checks will incur a penalty from the bank, and you’ll often be charged a fee by the recipient of the check, too. You can opt for overdraft protection, meaning that the bank will cover you when you bounce a check, but they’ll charge you a fee for that, too. Having an accurate record of your checks also helps to track your spending so you know where your money is going.
In your register, write the check number, date, payee, description, and amount. This information can all be found on the check you just wrote. The description can be what you wrote in the check’s Memo field, or it can be a different note to yourself. It can be as simple as “Groceries” or something like “Loan to Freddie for college books.”
The last part of keeping a check register is balancing your checkbook. This was traditionally done monthly because it relied on paper statements from your bank. Today, you can access your banking information online and balance your checkbook whenever you want. To balance your checkbook, look at the checks you wrote down and compare this with the checks that have cleared through your bank. Make a little mark next to every check that has cleared. When you’re done, you should be able to compare the ending balances, and the number you get should equal the amount the bank says you have in your account. If it doesn’t, review your checks to see what you might have missed. Consult your bank about any concerns.
Tips for Writing a Check
Many of the traditions of check-writing may seem a bit quaint to modern eyes. The fact is, though, that many of them became traditions for a reason. Most of these longstanding practices developed over time to combat fraud, so they’re still valid today. For instance, any check with incomplete information is an invitation to fraud. Even in cases where the bank works with you to clean up fraudulent transactions, doing so will occupy plenty of your time. There’s also no guarantee that you’ll get all of your money back. It’s best to observe a few security-minded tips to prevent check fraud in the first place.
- Make it Permanent: Always write checks with a pen that has permanent ink. Using a pencil or erasable ink makes it possible for another person to alter the amount of the check.
- No Blank Checks: Never give anyone, no matter how trusted, a blank check bearing your signature. Even if they have good intentions, a simple mistake could cause big problems in your checking account.
- Fill in the Space: When you write out the check amount in words, it’s traditional to add a line to fill up the remaining space on the line. That’s to prevent anyone adding words or numbers on that line to make the check a larger amount.
- Consider Carbon Copies: When you order checks, look for products with a carbon copy option. This option makes every check a two-part document. Under the actual check will be a thin sheet of pressure-sensitive paper. As you write your check, the sheet beneath it records the details. This can be a real time-saver if you write a lot of checks, since it can take the place of a check register. Even if you use a traditional register, the carbon copy can be a great reference so you don’t have to remember the check details.
- Sign the Same: Always write your signature the same way. Using a consistent signature on your checks will help to identify any fraudulently signed checks.
- Don’t Use “Cash”: Don’t write a check out to “Cash.” Doing so makes the check work like an ATM card, which might sound convenient but is truly dangerous. If that check is lost or stolen, the thief can get cash directly from your account. If you need cash, withdraw it from an ATM or with a bank teller’s assistance. You can also get cash back when you use your debit card.
- Write Fewer Checks: You don’t have to avoid writing checks if that’s what you prefer. The important point is to use the right payment tool for the situation you’re in. Writing checks to your friends to avoid fees makes sense. However, writing checks to pay bills through the mail isn’t as sound of a strategy when online bill payment services may do the job better. The fewer checks you write, the fewer can be lost or stolen. Writing fewer checks also helps you keep your check register up to date and make balancing your checkbook a quicker, easier process.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can I Write a Check to Myself?
It’s fine to write a check to yourself. This is sometimes done to move money between accounts. For example, you might need to transfer money from your checking account to a high-yield savings account at another bank. To write a check to yourself, enter your own name in the payee section and endorse the back of the check in order to cash it.
When Should I Sign a Check?
Adding your signature should be the last step in the check-writing process. Make sure the payee (“Pay to the order of”) section is complete and accurate and the amount is clearly written. Only then should you sign the check, which makes it official. If you sign it before filling in that important information, the payee or amount could be altered.
- Types of Checking Accounts
- Why You Should Still Use Checks
- How to Void a Check
- What Is an E-Check, and How Does it Work?
- Bounced Checks: What They Are and How to Avoid Fees
- How to Balance a Checkbook and Reconcile a Bank Statement
- Balancing Your Checkbook Worksheet
- How to Use Checks Safely and Securely
- How Writing Personal Checks Can Expose You to Fraud
- How to Send Checks Securely Through the Mail