Do I need checks?
August 12, 2008 7:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of moving entirely to online bill pay. Have I thought this through? Will I regret having no way to write a paper check?

I'd like to simplify my banking life by moving entirely to paperless banking, This is 80% done, but I still write checks for rent, massage, dog license and other random things. If you've moved away from checks, what expenses do you have to scramble to deal with, which I might not have thought of: deposit for a new apartment? The plumber? Help me know what might come up.

posted by Riverine to Work & Money (55 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Purchasing something, high ticket item, from a private individual. ?
Lost wallet (credit cards) and the weekend/holiday so no bank access for funds
posted by edgeways at 7:31 PM on August 12, 2008

Anything where I want to be able to track the payment that doesn't accept plastic. School related things come to mind.
posted by theichibun at 7:34 PM on August 12, 2008

- Your kid's school field trips
- Government agencies, maybe
- Gifts in birthday cards
posted by mdonley at 7:34 PM on August 12, 2008

I write maybe one or two checks a year, on average. I don't actually know where my checkbook is right now. I pay my regular bills entirely online. Some, like my cell phone, are automatically applied to my credit card, so I just periodically check the statements to make sure nothing is amiss. For normal purchases, I use plastic for pretty much everything, and cash for the rest.

The "other random things," e.g. traffic tickets, do sometimes require checks. A lot of municipal and state governments have transitioned to screwing you online instead of screwing you via USPS, but for that and everything else you'll probably have to dig out your checkbook no more than a few times a year.

That being said, deposits for new apartments are a huge pain in the ass, but there are ways of doing it. You can always just write a check if you have to. But if you plan far enough ahead, you can have your bank cut a check using their bill-pay features. I've paid rent for about four years this way, so I don't see why you couldn't do it for your deposit too.

Except that some property managers won't take personal checks of any sort and insist upon cashiers checks/money orders/gold bullion, etc. But then you're out of luck anyways, so it's no incentive not to use online bill pay.

In short, I'd completely encourage you to go for it.
posted by valkyryn at 7:35 PM on August 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I lived without checks for 5 years, it wasn't much of a hassle. I paid rent, then mortgage with online bill pay/check and everything in between. I did a combo of online bill pay and the online check writing offered by my bank. I probably had 6-7 reasons in 5 years to write a check where an online check or cash wouldn't work, in those cases I just got a money order (apartment deposit, mortgage closing costs, I can't think of much else).

I recently just got a book of checks 3 months ago because I'm going through a major house remodel and it's easier to write checks then paying all my contractors in cash (although about half of my contractors do accept credit cards). If I wasn't dealing with so many contractors and the budget wasn't so high, I'd be paying the ones who don't take credit cards in cash.

I will go back to the no check lifestyle once the remodel is complete and my checks run out. I really don't see the need for handwritten checks anymore.
posted by pokeedog at 7:53 PM on August 12, 2008

I don't think I've written a check in 6 or 7 years - Obviously I don't know the ways in which my specific financial protocols vary (whether by choice or necessity) from yours, but broadly speaking, I can heartily recommend it.
posted by jalexei at 7:57 PM on August 12, 2008

I write checks for rent and medical bills (only because I need to include payment slips and I don't want to send my credit card number through the mail). For anybody that can't accept electronic payments (like your dog walker), most bill-pay services will cut paper checks, same as if you wrote it out yourself. It's not like you're shredding your checkbook or anything, so any unexpected expenses you might have can still be covered with a funny piece of paper. It's a strangely liberating experience, not having to deal with payment slips and stamps and everything.
posted by calistasm at 7:58 PM on August 12, 2008

Most banks offer free checking, so you should be able to keep checks around. I personally find checks an extremely handy way of paying people back, since I almost never keep much cash on me. Switching to online billpay is quite nice.
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:03 PM on August 12, 2008

I pay most of my bills online via my checking account. Looking at my checkbook, there are a few things I've written checks for that I think I'd have a hard time using bill payer or a credit card for

- health insurance - I get the bill about ten days before it's due and they'll cancel me if they don't get my check. Basically I don't trust them to not fuck up an online check and the penalties are too steep. I could switch to CC payment for this however.
- donations to organizations that I don't want to take all my personal information. Paying online with a CC means giving up all your personal info. Writing a check and crossing out your address/phone means they won't use it to spam you later. This works pretty well.
- paying the neighbor for snowplowing. I could have used cash for this, but online billpay would not have worked.
- PASSPORT. I had to get a passport at a small satellite passport office in Vermont. They would not take cash or credit cards, just checks or money orders. It was totally insane but true. My other option was to go to Boston.

Those are the only checks I've written in the last year that were not for rent, taxes or IRA investments.
posted by jessamyn at 8:06 PM on August 12, 2008

Doctor's visits only take checks/money orders for co-payments, in my experience. For me, it's a lot easier to keep a checkbook around (free from Washington Mutual) to use for once in awhile things like that, compared to having to go into 7-11 or whatever to pay $1 for a money order.
posted by amethysts at 8:18 PM on August 12, 2008

My therapist uses the office of another practice (no cashier), so I usually write checks for that. While I could probably just have another auto-draft set up, it would be unnecessarily impersonal. As if my finances were handled by my staff and I was too important to sully my hands by dealing with it personally. This might not be an issue for many payors and payees, but I feel the check should be around until credit/debit cards can talk to each other directly. Check transactions carry with them an element of trust, which an 'invoice me' type of environment would make very cold and undignified.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:20 PM on August 12, 2008

I don't use my bank's online payments for anything that isn't an electronic transfer from the bank to the payee. When the payee isn't set up to receive electronic transfers the bank actually mails out a paper check. The account number that the check is for is noted in small print in the upper left hand corner of the check - I don't trust the payee to correctly identify whose account should be credited. I only run into this with small businesses, like my dry cleaner, for the most part. I also end up writing checks for most "once per year" payments like property taxes.
posted by Carbolic at 8:21 PM on August 12, 2008

I keep a couple checks folded and secured in places in case I lose my ATM card. They are almost as good as cash, yet more secure should they be lost. So I like having a current checking account - in case my card gets lost or stolen, I have a backup means of paying for something or getting some cash. I keep one check folded small in my wallet, one folded small and hidden in my glove box under some maps, and one in my messenger bag. They've come in handy.
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

House repairs and maintenance requires checks in my experience. Charity stuff too, and kids selling goodies for school - unless you have lots of cash lying around.

I do all my other stuff online, I don't know what you'd need to eliminate checks. For me, the online system just means I need to order new checks only about once every twelve years at the rate I'm going.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:31 PM on August 12, 2008

Home repairs not only require checks often, but around here people like local checks because they hate waiting for out of state checks to clear. You can pay with cash if it's a few hundred dollars but paying for a new roof pretty much requires checks.

For the record, I've had this book of checks for so long that I have to cross out the 19 in the 19__ part where you write the date so I can write 2008. The address is a place I haven't lived since 1999.
posted by jessamyn at 8:35 PM on August 12, 2008

I still use them once in a while, usually for friends and family, be it gifts or just settling tabs. (If one of us puts dinner on our credit card, the others pay their share to that person, but paying them $16.47 would be really annoying; rounding down to $15 is cheating them, and rounding up to $20 is too much. So they get a check for $16.47.)

Can't you switch to "using online banking for everything I can," but still keep checks for the times you can't?
posted by fogster at 8:43 PM on August 12, 2008

DMV here in CT requires checks or cash for license renewals. No credit cards and the fees can't be mailed.
posted by smackfu at 8:46 PM on August 12, 2008

I write checks only for rent, doctor, and dentist. Gas/heat, electricity, broadband, credit card bills are all online for me. I can't think of any other examples, though.

For a new online billing users, I suggest you don't use the "automatic deduction" or other auto-pay options. Get used to regularly checking your bills online and manually paying them first. My parents had autopay on their phone bill and didn't notice a $400 bill sneak past until a few months later.

First get the online bill-checking habit--make bookmarks to all relevant sites into one folder or something. Manual pay for a while. Move to autopay if you're comfortable with your own ability to check later on. That's my advice, anyway.

And I still keep a couple blank checks in my wallet just in case.
posted by Ky at 8:49 PM on August 12, 2008

My experience is exactly like valkyryn's.

I think I have written maybe one check in the last five years. We have some things that are paid automatically by credit card (cell phone bill and cable bill), others that are paid automatically by online checking (rent, school loans, IRA contributions), and everything else I set up manually using online bill pay. I don't write checks even for things like birthday money for my younger siblings-in-law. You can set anyone up as a payee and the bank will just issue a bank check and send it directly to their designated address in the mail, like it was a normal check. (Except you don't have to deal with the hassle of finding a stamp and mailing it.)

Like Miko and others, I do keep a few old checks stashed in my wallet and in another secure place for emergencies, but the last time I used one was years ago to pay for a nice ceramic vase at some out of the way art store that didn't take credit cards, and there was no ATM closeby.

Most banks will give you a checkbook to use, even if you primarily use online bill pay. I don't see why you couldn't just have some checks set aside for an emergency, and use the online system for pretty much everything else.
posted by gemmy at 8:50 PM on August 12, 2008

I almost never use checks. Note that I don't have kids. These are my recent checks:
* DMV - 8-8-08 (Had to renew by mail this year)
* Pizza - 12-23-07 - I don't order pizza very often.
* Windshield replacement - 11-1-07 - Cracked windshield.
* Charity - 8-7-07 - I think they had a matching donation program that came via mail.
* Wedding gift - 8-3-07 - Wrote them a check.
* DMV - 7-23-07
* Charity - 1-9-07

So, I've written seven checks in the last 19 months. Online Bill Pay is SO much better.
posted by cnc at 8:56 PM on August 12, 2008

I have 1 checkbook that lasts for years.
posted by k8t at 9:39 PM on August 12, 2008

2nding fogstar - keep the checkbook for those 3-5 things a year that pop up; use the bill pay for all the regular options.

Alternatively, don't money management programs (Quicken, MS Money) have the ability to access your online bill pay AND allow manual input of things? It might be something to look into :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 9:44 PM on August 12, 2008

I'm flipping through my cheques for the last couple of years.

I write regular cheques for:
- diaper service
- bottled water delivery (for water cooler)
- day care
- mains water in our small town
First three are for small businesses, last is for our backwards small town.

Here's a summary of things that I've wrote cheques for one-off on the past few years (obviously out of order):
- vacation rental (rented off
- car (bought in cash)
- earnest money for closing on house
- home inspector
- traffic tickets
- puppy
- movers
- void cheques for setting up direct deposit
- doula
- acupuncture
- passport
- dog license
- yoga class
- sewer hookup
- dentist
- dog sitting
- furnace
- charity gala

Even though writing cheques is a huge pain in the ass, and I wish everybody would go plastic/online already, I'm keeping my chequebook.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:02 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

My bank allows you to submit any bills online. You put in the name and address of who you would like to pay, and they issue the check.

I've never had a problem with this. It does require some planning ahead as it takes 2-3 days for the check to be printed and mailed. You may still need to keep a checkbook for emergencies, but if your bank offers anything similar, anything you can plan for you, you can "write" your checks online.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:40 AM on August 13, 2008

Response by poster: This has been very helpful. The pressing issue right now is that while most of my money is in HSBC online only accounts (no checks), I have a checking account at a bank I dislike, and I just ran out of checks. So I can either stay with them, grumpy, or get free now and deal with the consequences.

Taxes are the big thing on this list, to me. Can I use online bill pay for this? As in, can I add them as a payee, check made out to them, but have it mailed to me so that I can send it in attached to my tax return (my accountant does not file electronically)?

Similarly, my weirdo Canadian landlord will not give me his address (??) so I need to leave a form of money for him. If the above works, I can use that to pay him.
posted by Riverine at 6:26 AM on August 13, 2008

I only write checks for pizza and sushi deliveries. Everything else is paid online, most of it on my bank's website.
posted by signal at 7:59 AM on August 13, 2008

I write checks to my roomates for the split utilities because then we can keep track of payment and it is faster than online bill pay. That is the only thing I use checks for. Otherwise, I keep my checkbook in my glove compartment of my car for emergencies.

As far as savings and checkings accounts go.... I have a checking account at a bank I don't like too - but their online site is pretty good so I just use that account for payments. Then I use an online savings that I don't touch.

Oh someone above said "traffic tickets"; the courthouse I went to accepted my debit card. And I don't even know any delivery places around here that accept checks! You can use numerous websites to pay for your order online using your credit card, then just have it delivered.
posted by lintacious at 8:18 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why not find a different bank to host the checking account for checks? You always want to have checks around, even if you don't use them very much.

Oddly enough, I made the move from HSBC to WaMu specifically because they started billing me $3/month to mail my checks back to me instead of incinerating them.
posted by Citrus at 8:38 AM on August 13, 2008

I use VersaCheck - I can print my own when I really really need to, otherwise no checks in my house. I bank all ING and a local bank that I print checks from.
posted by thilmony at 8:51 AM on August 13, 2008

Even many cities take debit cards or online payment for traffic tickets nowadays. I also pay taxes electronically. I use my debit/check card instead of checks in most cases.

Recently I ran out of checks and needed to pay my rent. Using online bill pay, I entered my landlord's name and address. My bank mailed a check to them directly, which acts more like a cashier's check (a good thing). The only issue: you must do this online in advance to allow for mail, and it doesn't allow you to "float" a check. The money is debited the day you request it. If you mail rent on the 29th knowing it won't arrive until your paycheck posts on the 30th or 31st, this will not work.

Keep some checks on hand, but you won't use them much.

If you really want to get rid of the box of checks, you can either get money orders at a US post office for less than a dollar, or you can get cashier checks at your bank. Some banks charge for a cashier check, while others only charge if you aren't a client.
posted by cherie72 at 8:54 AM on August 13, 2008

I do almost everything using on-line billpay. It's awesome. But really, switching to billpay doesn't mean that you can't have a checkbook on hand for the few times you write checks.
posted by radioamy at 9:41 AM on August 13, 2008

I have ING's Electric Orange account.

There is no checkbook. Now, I live in New York City, where no one takes a check, really, so it hasn't been a big deal. It was odd when I lived other places, like Seattle, where people would write a check for a $3.50 latte. I just grew up not counting on ever being able to use a check for the most part.

For a while I kept a local bank account but just recently cancelled it because I don't need it any more.

ING will cut a paper check and mail or overnight it for people who can't take an electronic payment.

Here are the cases where I had to revise my thinking:

1) Rent: no choice here, she doesn't want cash. This just means I have to make sure to order the check immediately on the first of the month so she gets it in time.
2) Settling up household expenses with my S.O.: we used to just write each other checks. Then we set up a joint savings account with ING so we transfer money in and out of there instead.
3) Copays: this means I have to remember that I have the appointment and remember to have exact change. Some providers will take plastic (I have one that will only take plastic), but most don't yet.
4) Traffic tickets: i would NEVER pay a parking ticket except in cash or via money order. I do not want the state getting more information from me than they're entitled to.

When it comes time to move, no one in NYC will take a personal check for anything related to a real estate transaction so that means going to the bank anyway. And anyone else I have to deal with - catsitter comes to mind - wants cash. Gifts - if I can't hand the card to the child then I'm going to get a gift card.

Cash just requires more of an effort. But it also makes me be less lazy, which I appreciate.
posted by micawber at 10:39 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know how your bank cuts checks, but with mine I tell them the address to send it to in addition to the check information. So theoretically you could just input your address as the payee address for the checks you want to mail yourself.
posted by Kimberly at 11:16 AM on August 13, 2008

I haven't had checks in 6 years. Occasionally it's a hassle with some of the items mentioned above, but not so much so that I've gotten more checks. Mainly it requires some planning to have your alternatives ready ahead of time.

In particular, for several years I was in a vanpool where the only way to pay was in person with a check, and the amount varied from month to month. For that, I tried to get a cashier's check as soon as I knew what the amount was. A few times, I ran a little late, once or twice I ended up paying cash, which was supposedly a big no-no, but they took it anyway. :)

One thing you may want to have handy for making payments for things by phone or online is the bank's routing number. Every description of it says to "look at the bottom of your check" for the number, but you should be able to find it on the bank's website. (At the credit union where I work, it's the top search term on our website.)

Taxes can be tricky; I paid the IRS online through a 3rd party, which cost a little extra, but not a whole lot. (YMMV.) I think the bill pay service we use at work can't send checks to government agencies, IIRC, and we had to put a special notice about not being able to pay property or income tax that way. Again, YMMV.
posted by epersonae at 12:49 PM on August 13, 2008

Weight the cost of a box of checks (how often you use said checks) against how many money orders you would otherwise purchase to manage check-only transactions. Most money orders are priced by the transaction amount, so a rental deposit could make for a pricey money order.

Also, you might consider the check as a legal document, in some ways, if you ever need to demonstrate payment. A money order or cashier's check is equivalent to cash and can't be easily traced or documented.

Keeping a checkbook on hand is probably smarter than the alternatives, for those reasons.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:40 PM on August 13, 2008

For US Federal taxes, you can pay online through through the government's EFTPS service. This includes the ability to schedule the payment in advance so that the transaction is performed on the due date. I started doing this last year after a large tax payment check of mine was lost in the mail, and it's worked very well for me.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:48 PM on August 13, 2008

Just a thought because I had to deal with this recently. And apologies for being morbid. In case something were to happen to you, keep a list somewhere of all the bills and the companies phone numbers. I can tell you, trying to switch a non-paper family back to paper with no info to start with is a bee-yotch!
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:57 PM on August 13, 2008

I dunno, I write maybe one a month? Mostly everything is deducted automagically from my checking account, I use a cash back credit card wherever I can. Please see the comment above mine - I should absolutely be doing this right now.
posted by fixedgear at 4:10 PM on August 13, 2008

"Weirdo Canadian landlord"? The ethnic caricature stings!

I only use cheques to pay rent to my own weird Canadian landlord (he happens to be Canadian, and comes by his weirdness honestly). And once to pay the ambulance bill when I got hauled off to hospital.

Maybe that's the problem with your landlord: maybe he'd give you his address if you wrote him cheques, not checks?
posted by bicyclefish at 4:58 PM on August 13, 2008

In the rare instance where you need to use a cheque, couldn't you just use those one's credit cards include with their statements? They work the same as real cheques.
posted by furtive at 8:11 PM on August 13, 2008

Direct Deposit. Setting that up without a voided check (or at least a photocopy of one) is next to impossible, unless the person you're working with is really flexible.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:17 PM on August 13, 2008

In the rare instance where you need to use a cheque, couldn't you just use those one's credit cards include with their statements? They work the same as real cheques.

Oh no, bad bad idea. Those charge a fee that ranges from $5 to hundreds of dollars, and then of course, they charge you interest on it until your credit card is completely paid off.
posted by designbot at 6:05 AM on August 14, 2008

2nding thilmony; a check is really just an IOU, they were originally written out completely by hand from a blank piece of paper. There's no reason you have to pay some company for pre-printed checks. on printing your own checks

They recommend things like MICR magnetic ink and fancy paper, but technically you don't need any of that; a printout cut to the right size and displaying the numbers, signatures, etc in the correct place would suffice (especially for small amounts and / or if you let the bank know you're printing your own checks). But I am not your banker (or a banker at all) and any bank can decide to levy hefty fees not listed on their fee schedule at any time, of course.
posted by XMLicious at 7:57 AM on August 14, 2008

Most banks print money orders and official checks; for a fee (and only for their customers). You can also get money orders at the Post Office. Might be cheaper than keeping a local bank account if you can't find any free ones, and less expensive than ordering checks from your bank if you don't write many paper checks.

I'd still keep a checkbook, if I were you. You should be able to find a bank that has a no-monthly-fee rockbottom checking account.
posted by Eideteker at 8:38 AM on August 14, 2008

Response by poster: Re: weirdo Canadian landlord--the weirdness is that he won't give me his address, and the Canadian part means my online bill pay probably won't mail a check to him (the form for payees takes US addresses only). But...he is weird. (I have dual citizenship, myself, so no slight was intended.)

You've all given me food for thought, which I appreciate. I think that I will see how I can do without checks for a while, since I'm out of them for now, and reassess after a month or two. I've arranged for my online bill pay to send me my landlord's check (made out to him, of course).
posted by Riverine at 8:41 AM on August 14, 2008

I still use checks to pay for certain utilities that would otherwise charge me a "convenience fee" for paying online or by credit. Bastards.
posted by aramaic at 9:16 AM on August 14, 2008

This question confuses me a bit. Why can't you just try to be as paper free (using online bill pay and stuff) as possible and keep a box or two of checks on hand. I got a few boxes free when I opened my checking account a few years back and I'm not close to running out. It doesn't really cost anything to get new ones either with most bank accounts from the larger banks (boa, wamu, wachovia, etc).
posted by jourman2 at 8:53 AM on August 15, 2008

Response by poster: Jourman2, it's ecause my HSBC accounts are not checking accounts. They do not issue you a box of checks, at all. One is savings, one is online bill pay, both are interest-bearing in part because the bank does not have to deal with paper, and don't provide me account services at a local branch.

My issue is that the checking account I have with a local branch of Key does nothing for me (thus my wish to move all my money to HSBC), and I just ran out of checks.
posted by Riverine at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2008

Oh I get it - so the question is really "do I still need a checking account - of which one of the consequences of going without is that I will have no physical checks"

Cool question.
posted by jourman2 at 11:52 AM on August 15, 2008

Checks In the Mail has cheap, attractive checks. I've had no problem in 10+ years of ordering from them.
posted by theora55 at 9:42 AM on August 16, 2008

My doctor's office takes credit/debit cards for co-pays. I've also seen some do "electronic check"--you write a check and they clear it then and there. Checks In the Mail is good--I've used them. Currently with WAMU--free checks for life.

I agree with home improvements needing a check. You want a paper trail for warranties, quality of work issues and payments, etc.. We never pay cash for these. You want the paper trail.
posted by 6:1 at 11:00 AM on August 17, 2008

"Direct Deposit. Setting that up without a voided check (or at least a photocopy of one) is next to impossible, unless the person you're working with is really flexible."

Not necessarily. What they really need is the account number and the routing number; those 2 items are easiest to find on a check, but that's not the only place for them.

Re printing your own checks: it's my understanding that banks scrutinize these much more carefully when they're cashed, and may decide to refuse them. (Apparently they're a common vector for check fraud.)
posted by epersonae at 12:21 PM on August 18, 2008

When my checkbook ran out, I went checkless for about three years. What finally spurred me to get more checks? Not paying contractors, or debts to friends, or charitable donations.

It was when I wanted to open an online savings account with a new bank (Emigrant). Making the initial deposit could be done by mailing Emigrant a check, or as an electronic transfer from my existing checking account -- which had to be authorized by mailing Emigrant a voided check. Many other banks have the same policy.
posted by Eater at 8:20 PM on August 24, 2008

I'm 30 something and had never had a Cheque Book until recently moving to London UK. (I'm from Australia).

if I really needed a cheque like thing I'd go to the post-office and get a Postal Cheque which is kinda like a Bank Cheque but cheaper i think.

So I find cheques very odd. and don't use it.
posted by mary8nne at 8:53 AM on August 27, 2008

Ive been checkless for several years. I love online banking. I setup reoccurring payments for all my bills. if i get a bill in the mail for something non-reoccurring I login in and schedule a payment. If I do need to send a check, its doable via the online interface, or i can goto the bank and buy 3 checks for 3 dollars. Thats like once every two years for me. otherwise its cash or credit. I have two primary cards in my pocket, and more at home if i were to lose those.
posted by tomas316 at 8:39 AM on September 30, 2008

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