How to fill out a check and prevent money fraud
It’s called a checking account for a reason.
Contributing Writer at Tally
February 20, 2020
With so many payment options today — cash, debit cards, credit cards, peer-to-peer payment systems and more — personal checks are nowhere near as popular as they once were, but they’re far from extinct. According to Qualtrics, 42% of millennials write checks, so understanding how to write one is still a crucial part of financial literacy.
Below, you’ll learn the key steps to filling out a personal check the right way along with some helpful tips. But first, let’s look at a few situations where you may need to write a check.
When you may need to write a personal check
Despite declining use recently, sometimes paying by check is unavoidable or even preferable.
Here are a few times when you may need to write a check:
Your landlord won’t accept cash or a debit card for rent payment.
You’re paying a large down payment on a car or other purchase.
You’re paying someone who lacks a peer-to-peer payment account like PayPal or Venmo.
You’re mailing a payment.
You’re shopping at a store that doesn’t accept credit or debit cards.
If you find yourself in one of these situations or another that requires a check, you’ll want to start from the top — literally.
The first step to writing a check is to put the date on it — without this, the bank can’t cash or deposit it.
The date goes on the short line on the top right corner of the check with “Date” written next to it.
You can write the date many ways as long as it has the month, day and year in that order. For example, if you were writing a check dated February 6, 2020, you could write the date in any of these ways:
Feb. 6, 2020
February 6, 2020
Make sure to write the current date. Writing a future date, which is called postdating, can cause your bank to reject it. Writing a check for too long in the past can raise a red flag at your bank, too.
Always write out the full year, as a slick fraudster can easily change the date if you only write the last two digits. This is particularly true in our example above. If the person you wrote the check to deposits it digitally, they could easily change “02/06/20” to “02/06/2021” and attempt to digitally deposit the check in 2021.
Below the date and to the left is a long line that generally has “Pay to the order of” written on it. This is the payee line.
On the payee line, you want to clearly write the full name of the person or company you are paying. While a mild spelling error in a name is not a deal-breaker, you want to use care to get the spelling correct to make depositing the check easier for the recipient.
If you’re paying a company or organization with a long name that’s colloquially known by an acronym, you can use the acronym instead. For example, if you’re paying to rent the Young Men's Christian Association hall for a birthday party, you can write the check out to the more well-known YMCA.
To the right of the payee line is a small box or line with a dollar sign in front of it. Here, you’ll write the exact amount of the check in dollars and cents numerically — for example, $102.95.
Because you’re writing this check by hand, it can be easy for some people to miss a decimal point or mistake it for a comma. To avoid this issue, you can put the cents over “100” so it’s clear those are cents and not additional numbers after a comma. For example, you would write “$102.95” as “$102. 95/100.”
Always start writing the dollar amount as close to the left border or the left end of the line. This prevents a fraudster from adding numbers to the front and turning that $102.95 check into a $1,102.95 check.
Below the payee line is a long line with “Dollars” printed on the right end. On this line, you will spell out the dollar amount you are paying. For example, on your $102.95 check to the YMCA, you would write “One Hundred Two and 95/100.” Notice you write out the dollars but always write the cents numerically.
For added safety, you should always draw a straight or squiggly line that fills the empty space between the end of your writing and the end of the line. Like above, this makes it harder for a fraudster to add more numbers to the amount and drain your checking account.
On the bottom left of all checks is a short line with the word “Memo” or “For” printed on it. Filling out this line is optional, but it can help in many ways.
One common way to use this memo line is for categorization. If this is for groceries, you may write “Groceries” on it. If it’s to pay the down payment on your new car, you may write “Car Down Payment” in this space.
It’s also a good way to let the recipient know what this check is for. If you’re paying your landlord rent for February, you may want to write the month and your apartment number. For example, “February 2020 rent unit No. 3.”
This “memo” line can also play an important role when paying bills. If your check gets separated from your payment stub, the company you’re paying may not know what account to apply the payment to. You may not realize your bill went unpaid until suddenly your internet, cellphone or electricity gets shut off. If you jot down your bank account number on this line, the company knows what account to apply the payment to.
On the bottom right of your check, there is one final line. Unlike the other lines and boxes on your check, this one may not have anything printed on it.
This line is for your signature — and no check is valid without the account holder signing it.
You want to sign on this line just as you signed when you opened the account. For example, if you signed with your full legal name or using a middle initial, you will want to match that on your checks. Your bank may reject a check without a signature that matches what it has on file, causing headaches for whoever you’re paying.
Though it's slower than a debit card, a check will eventually hit your bank account and result in a withdrawal. To avoid an overdraft, you'll want to immediately enter it into your check register, the small line-filled book the bank issued along with your checkbook.
Starting on the left, each line of the check register has a space for the check number, date, transaction, withdrawal or deposit amount and the running balance in your checking account.
Here are the quick steps to entering your check into the check register:
Entering the check number in the first blank space on the left. You'll find the check number in the top right corner of your check.
Write the date in the next space to the right.
Write the name of the payee and any other important details in the "transaction" space.
Input the amount of the check in the "withdrawal" space.
Subtract the amount of the check from your checking account balance, and write that amount in the running balance.
Other check-writing tips
Knowing how to write a check is great, but there are several other tips that can help ease the check-writing process.
Voiding a check
In some cases, you may write a check then no longer need it. For example, if you wrote it out to the wrong company or just decided not to buy the item you were using the check for.
You may be inclined to just toss the check in the trash, but an uncashed check with your signature on it is a magnet for fraud. Avoid this issue by voiding the check.
Using a black or blue pen, write “VOID” in large letters over the payee line, payment amount box and signature line. Alternatively, you can write “VOID” once across the entire check using a pen of a felt-tip marker.
A voided check doesn't offer 100% protection against fraud, so take additional precautions to prevent fraud like shredding the check or ripping it into small pieces.
Fixing errors on your check
Keep in mind that each bank has different rules about what errors you can fix on a paper check, so reach out to your bank about its specific rules.
As a general rule, state laws value words over numbers. If you accidentally write the wrong check amount numerically, you can write the correct number above it, circle the correct amount and sign your initials next to it.
If you make a mistake in spelling out the amount, you will have to void the check and start over.
If you make a mistake on the date, simply cross it out, write the correct date above it, and sign your initials.
Other notable parts of a check
Other than the areas you fill out, there are other parts of a check you should understand.
On the very bottom of the check are three groups of computer-printed numbers. On the left side is the routing number, a nine-digit number specific to your bank. This number lets the receiving bank know what institution to send it to for funding.
The number to the right of the routing number is the checking account number. This number lets the funding bank know what checking account to draw the money from.
The routing and account number will remain consistent on every check in your checkbook.
To the right of the checking account number is a shorter group of numbers. This is the check number. The check number varies by check, allowing you track each check.
On the back of the check, you’ll find the endorsement area, which has a series of lines with “Endorse Here” printed above them. This is where the payee or payees sign the check before depositing it. When they deposit it digitally, they’ll also write “For mobile or online deposit only” under the signature.
Time to start using checks
Now you have all the information you need to write a check that’s sure to clear your bank with no issues. If you need to get some checks, you can find plenty of websites that will print and mail you new checks. In some cases, banks even offer free checks, so ask your bank before paying for them.
There is a certain amount of risk that comes with accepting a personal check since you have no idea if the writer has the cash to cover the amount of the check. This is where money orders come into play. Learn how to get one in our guide.