You’ve got your favorite rewards card and a phone full of payment apps — but can you fill out a paper check?
A personal check is a way to pay someone for products and services without using cash or a credit card or debit card, says Katharine Perry, financial consultant at Fort Pitt Capital Group. Before banks had individual phone apps, a checkbook was the easiest way to track payments and account balances.
Using a personal check has positives and negatives, says Steve Kenneally, senior vice president of payments at the American Bankers Association.
“The neat thing about checks is you can pay anyone anywhere at any time — all you need to know is their name,” he says. “The negative side of checks: You do have to hand someone something physically. You have to be there. Or, you have to drop it in the mail, which takes a long time and costs you a stamp … and once you deposit it, it could bounce.”
Video by Jason Armesto
Use of checks drops 3% every year, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2017 payment study. Even if your go-to payment methods are digital, there are certain expenses where it’s still common, or required, even, to use a personal check, like paying rent and submitting tax payments.
So you’ll need to know how to fill one out correctly. Mistakes like misspellings, illegible handwriting, or missing fields — like forgetting to sign the check, for example — can mean the bank will reject the check and cost you time and money.
Issues related to checks are still among the most-searched questions on Google. “How to fill out a personal check” ranked seventh on the search giant’s top personal finance questions in the past year, with “How long are personal checks good for” and “How to sign over a personal check” in the number five and 19 spots, respectively.
Here are your most-asked questions about personal checks, answered:
Typically, a check is good for up to six months — after that amount of time, banks are not obligated to cash it.
A personal check must be filled out in pen. Follow these steps:
1. Record the date
In the top right corner, place the date following the format of month/day/year.
2. Identify who’s receiving the check
Clearly write the name of the person or business that you are writing the check to on the line stating “Pay to the order of.”
3. Write the amount of money using numbers
Use the outlined box to numerically state how much the check is for in dollars and cents. Make sure to be as close to the dollar sign as possible to prevent anyone from adding in numbers — turning your $50 check into a $550 one, for example.
4. Write out the dollar amount
On the line below the recipient’s name, write out the dollar amount in words and then draw a line to the end. To indicate a check without cents, for example, five hundred dollars can be written as: “Five hundred dollars and 0/100 or xx/100.” If it’s not a round dollar figure, say $500.30, write it as “Five hundred dollars and 30/100.”
5. Sign the check
Sign your name using the line on the bottom right side of the check.
6. Note the purpose of the check
On the bottom left side of the check you’ll see the word “memo” followed by a line. This optional step can be used to indicate exactly what the check is for, if that’s not clear from Step 2. (The long string of numbers on the bottom underneath the memo field are your routing number, your checking account number, and the check number, respectively.)
Make sure you log all these details in your paper check register, too, and reconcile the amount you wrote every month when you review your banking statement.
7. Check receivers only: Sign the back
When you deposit a check, make sure all of the above details are present and correct to avoid problems with your bank. Then, flip the check over and sign your name in pen on the indicated line. A check cannot be deposited into a bank account if the back has not been signed by the check holder and that person's name matches what is written on the check.
Which leads us to our last often-asked check question: “How to sign over a personal check.”
Banks generally require that the name of the payee on the front of the check matches the signature on the back (i.e., that if you’re writing a check to John Q. Public, only John Q. Public can deposit or cash it). But if you don’t want to or can’t cash the check yourself, you can sign it over to someone else. When you do this, whoever you’re signing the check over to can deposit it to their account — and get the cash.
First, make sure that the recipient’s bank will accept a signed-over check. All good? Then write “Pay to the order of [new payee name]” on the back of the check, and sign it as you would in Step 7.
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