How to write a check (and other check-related stuff)

When you open a checking account, you’ll usually be given or sent a box with a bunch of checks in it. Even though they are much less popular than cards or cash for everyday spending, checks are still a viable way to pay for stuff, and sometimes they are the best or only way.

They also come in handy when you need to pay someone but don’t have the money right away. You can write the check and tell whomever you’re paying to wait until a certain date (when you know you’ll have the money) to cash it. 

If you’ve never had to use or write a check, however, they can be a little scary. The first time I wrote a check I messed it up majorly. So get psyched, because today we’re going to go over everything you need to know about checks!

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This is a check:

sample-check

Some will look a little different, but the basic layout of a check is always the same.

In the top left will be the information of the person or company who is writing the check. On your checks, your name and address will be here.

In the top right corner will be a number, which represents the number of the check. The first one in your pack should be something like 001.

On the bottom of the check should be a bunch of numbers in three groups. The group on the left is the routing number for your bank account. The middle group is the account number itself, and the last group is the check number again. When you pay for things online using your account or set up direct deposit payments, you’ll be asked to provide the routing and account numbers.

Then there are a lot of blank lines for you to fill out. Let’s look at how to do that.

How to write a check:

  1. Use a pen, never a pencil. You don’t want anyone being able to change the info on the check after you’ve written it. Also, as much as I love colored or sparkly pens, stick to blue or black ink for checks. 
  2. Write the date.
  3. On the line next to PAY TO THE ORDER OF, write to whom the check is addressed. For example, pretend Pinocchio is paying Jiminy Cricket for being his conscience. He’s going to write “Jiminy Cricket”. If you’re writing the check to a person, make sure you write the name that appears on that person’s bank account. In other words, don’t make it out to Bobby if his legal name is Robert.
  4. Next, on the big line under the PAY TO THE ORDER OF line, write the dollar amount you are paying in words and the cents as a number over 100. For example, Jiminy Cricket might charge $106 for his services, so Pinocchio writes “One hundred six dollars and 00/100”.
  5. In the box or on the line that has a $ in front of it, write the amount you are paying in numbers. Don’t forget the decimal! This is $106.00 in Pinocchio’s case.
  6. At the bottom of the check are two lines. The left one should say FOR. This is where you can write a note about what the money is being given for. You can write stuff like “Birthday gift” or “Gas money” here to help you keep track of where your money’s going or to remind the person you’re giving it to what it’s for, but this line is technically optional.
  7. Lastly, sign the line on the bottom right of the check. Hooray! You’re done.

Pinocchio’s finished check would look like this:

sample-check-filled-out

How to deposit a check:

  1. Double check that all of the information on the check is correct, including who is giving it to you and how much it’s made out to. Fixing errors after the money has been deposited may be difficult or impossible.
  2. Sign the back of the check on the line that says ENDORSE HERE. By endorsing the check, you are saying you have received it and the information on it is correct. Some banks have added a box on the back of their checks that needs to be marked if you plan to deposit your check through a mobile app.
  3. Take your check to the bank, or use your bank’s app to deposit the check.
  4. NOTE: If you use an app to photograph and deposit a check, make sure you hang on to the check until it clears and the money appears in your account. If something goes wrong, you don’t want to have to go back to the check writer and ask for another check. After the money is in your account, destroy the check by shredding it before trashing it.

I’m sure Jiminy Cricket needs his money for…top-hat maintenance? Whatever. He’d endorse his check like this:

sample-check-back

What to do if you make a mistake:

If you’re anything like me, you’re going to make at least one mistake on a check. Since checks are always written in pen, correcting errors has to be done carefully. Never use white-out on a check.

If you make a mistake, correct it neatly and with as little scribbling as possible; then write your initials next to the correction. This proves that you made the change, not the person you’re paying.

What to watch out for with checks:

  1. This may seem obvious, but make sure there’s enough money in your account to pay the full amount of the check. Checks act like debit cards in that they take the money from your account as soon as they are cashed. If you don’t have enough money to back it up, a check will “bounce”. A friend might just be annoyed by this, but businesses often charge fees of around $25 if a check you give them bounces.
  2. NEVER give anyone your blank checkbook, and especially don’t pre-sign a check for them. Once a check is authorized with your signature, someone could write any number they wanted in the money box and clean out your account.
  3. It’s also not a great idea to walk around with checks in your wallet or purse. If you lose your checkbook, it’s basically like losing a debit card. You’ll have to call your bank to freeze your account so no one can access your money, including you. Then you’ll have to go through the process of closing your account and opening a new one with a new number since checks have both the account and routing numbers on them. It’s a whole messy thing, so leave the checkbook safely tucked away at home unless there’s a very specific reason for taking it with you.

Whether or not you use checks regularly, knowing how to write them is an important skill. Now, when you go to pay your first month’s rent, split bills with your roomies, or pay your parents back for a loan they gave you, you can fill out your check with confidence and sign it with a flourish.

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