There are a lot of ways to pay your bills these days — electronic transfers, debit and credit cards, and digital methods of payment (known as 'digital wallets'). In fact, while people still write millions of checks each year, checks account only for about 12% of all non-cash payments, according to the Federal Reserve. It wouldn’t be surprising if you rarely wrote checks – or never at all if you’re younger than 25.
Still, checks are a great way to pay in certain instances, such as when you want a paper trail confirming your payment, you’re dealing with an individual who doesn’t have easy access to digital payment methods, or a business that doesn’t accept credit cards. Technology has strengthened checks’ fraud resistance, and the more you know about the anatomy of your checks, the safer you will be when using them.
Parts of a check
Here’s a breakdown of what is on the average check:
Your name and mailing address typically appear in the upper left corner of each check. It establishes who the check is from. On the upper right, you’ll find the check number, which helps the bank (and you) keep track of your payments and the order in which you’ve written checks.
In the middle third of the check is the pay to order line. Just as it sounds, here’s where you write the name of the person or business to which you’re making your payment. To the right of that line is the amount box, where you’ll write numerically the amount of the payment. As a verification of the amount, directly below the pay to order line is another unlabeled line where you will write out the check amount in words. For example, if you wrote $155 in the amount box, you would spell out “one hundred fifty-five dollars and no/100” on this line.
On the lower right is the signature line, where you will sign the check — turning it from a piece of paper into legal tender. To the left of that line is a memo line, where you have the option of making a notation for yourself or the payee as to what the check is for.
At the very bottom of the check is a string of numbers – these actually help move your payment. The first set on the left is typically the ABA (American Bankers Association) bank routing number. This nine-digit number identifies the financial institution from where the transaction is being paid, telling the bank to release your funds to the payee in the amount you’ve written on the check. The account number and the check number also appear with the bank routing number, so it provides a trail from your account.
More than one way to sign
Checks are still the preferred way for businesses to pay individuals, so if your employer doesn’t offer direct deposit, or if you do freelance work, you might get paid with a check. Checks also remain a way for individuals to pay each other or to give money as a gift.
When you get a check, you’ll need to sign the back of it in order to cash it or deposit it into your bank account. Typically, you should sign (or endorse) the back of the check exactly as your name appears on the front side’s pay to order line.
If you intend to deposit the check, you can add an extra layer of security by writing “deposit only” underneath your signature, along with your account number. This is called a restrictive endorsement and this tells the bank not to hand anyone cash for this check, but instead to put the funds into the account you’ve listed on the back.
If you are depositing the check using your mobile device, it will also be required that the full endorsement that the check is for "mobile deposit only" and should include the name of the financial institution. This prevents the same check from being deposited to multiple accounts since the check is not kept like it is when it is received at a bank or credit union.
A word about check etiquette
Keep in mind that while many stores will still accept checks as payment for purchases with proper ID, your fellow shoppers may not appreciate you taking too long to write one out. If you know you’ll be using a check for an in-store purchase, go ahead and fill out all the parts you can, leaving the amount and signature fields blank until you have your purchase total.