Personal Checks — Do People Still Use Them and What Are the Pros and Cons?
December 28, 2021
Yes, people still write personal checks, but their use has declined.
Before we delve into the specifics, let’s backtrack and answer three other commonly asked questions:
What is a personal check?
What are checks for, anyhow?
How do checks work?
What is a personal check?
Personal checks are specially designed papers used to pay bills and make purchases with funds from your checking account.
A routing number that identifies the bank or credit union where you hold an account
Your specific account number
A check number specific to the check
You fill in the date, the payee, and the amount in both numerical and written form on the check. Finally, you sign the check.
The payee can cash the personal check in exchange for funds, or deposit it into their account. That way, funds are transferred from your checking account to the payee.
Usage in the United States
After World War II, Americans used checking accounts in ever-growing numbers. These accounts doubled in the United States between 1939 and 1952, up to 47 million. In 1952, people wrote about eight billion checks.
In this era, check processing was manual and tedious, and bankers sought more streamlined solutions.
In 1955, the magnetic ink character recognition code (MICR) debuted, which facilitated the computer processing of checks, and the check-writing momentum continued. In 1979, people wrote nearly 33 billion checks, which accounted for about 86% of non-cash payments made that year. In 1995, nearly 50 billion checks were written, serving as the heyday of this form of payment.
By 2017 and 2018, check usage dropped to about 7% of financial transactions, reveals the Federal Reserve of Atlanta. On average, consumers today only write three checks a month. When looking at 2015 to 2018, the number of consumers who said that checks were their preferred bill paying method dropped by 23%
What are some advantages and disadvantages to paying with checks?
Checks have been around for a while, and that’s for a good reason. Here’s why they’ve had staying power, but also why the method is beginning to show its age.
Benefits of writing checks
A record of payment. As opposed to cash, or even some digital forms of payment, checks provide clear documentation that a bill was paid. It’s not the only way to accomplish this, but it’s a quick and easy method.
Security. Cashiers often check customer IDs to ensure the right person is cashing the check. If someone does forge a signature on a check you wrote, state law often mandates that you aren’t responsible for the theft of funds and the money’s returned to your account.
Fee-free. Checking accounts may have fees, though writing a check doesn’t typically come with one. From a budgeting standpoint, you can spend what’s in your checking account and then stop while, with credit cards, you can buy items with a pay-later mindset and your balances can accumulate pretty quickly.
Drawbacks of writing checks
Checking account fees. Checks may not have fees, but the checking account associated with them may include a monthly maintenance/service fee, overdraft fees, non-sufficient funds fees, ATM charges and so forth. Even when you shop around for the checking account with the least fees, you may need to buy the checks associated with your account.
Keeping your checkbook balanced. Thanks to digital tools, you don’t need to balance your checkbook the old-fashioned way. However, need to regularly balance your checking account to be clear about your outstanding balance. Because the recipients of the checks you write may not cash them right away, the true balance will typically be different from what the bank lists.
Monitoring. To ensure that direct deposits are in the correct amounts before writing checks against those dollars, you should monitor the check until it’s gone through. You’ll also need to monitor your account to ensure a check scam hasn’t occurred.
There are advantages and disadvantages to writing personal checks and each person should weigh the pros and cons before deciding on this practice. Fewer people are saying “yes” to check writing than in the past, though, which circles us back to a question asked earlier in this post: Why is using checks to pay bills becoming less popular?
Alternatives to writing checks
A big reason why using checks to pay bills is becoming less popular is the rise of alternatives. Many people send money electronically, whether that’s through PayPal, Venmo, Zelle, Google Pay, wire transfers through a bank or another system of choice. These options come with their pros and cons but have played a key role in reducing the number of personal checks written.
Consumers can also use automatic bill pay options to withdraw monthly amounts to pay for debts without a written check. When consumers need cash, they often withdraw money from ATMs.
Of course, many people use credit cards to make purchases and take cash advances to pay bills. In some cases, their balances go up beyond the point where the consumer can pay off the amounts in full each month — and, sometimes, debt increases to the point where it can be problematic. People still write checks, but at a much lower rate than historical highs.
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