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What Is a Personal Check — and Is It Still Useful?

Banking, Checking Accounts
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A personal check is a slip of paper that is linked to your checking account. On the check, you write an amount of money and the name of a recipient who will receive that money. The check is a promise that the money will be there when the recipient redeems it, whether hours, days or weeks later. Checks are like slow-motion debit cards, which is why they can seem out of date.

That doesn’t mean you should chuck your checkbook into the trash can. You might need to write a check occasionally, and doing so has its pros and cons.

Are personal checks useful?

They certainly can be, because some transactions still require checks. For instance, landlords may insist that tenants pay rent with checks, and some small businesses don’t accept credit or debit cards. If you prefer to stay disciplined with your spending, checks or cash can also be a better choice than plastic.

» MORE: How to write a check

Pros of personal checks

You avoid convenience fees. Some businesses, including many property managers, charge convenience fees for electronic payments. Payments via paper check are usually free.

They have old-school security. If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, you can kiss your cash goodbye. But banks and merchants still require a signature on every check, and cashiers are typically required to check customers’ IDs to verify that signatures are legitimate.

It’s an offline option. According to the Pew Research Center, 13% of all U.S. adults don’t use the internet. Paying bills with a check is much easier for these consumers than paying in person with cash.

Cons of personal checks

Checks cost money. Paying with a check can help you avoid convenience fees, but you usually have to pay for your actual checks, and you’ll definitely have to shell out a few bucks each month for envelopes and stamps if you use checks to pay bills by mail. Try finding a checking account that offers a free first box of checks, which some of the best checking accounts do.

Processing takes longer. 
Cash, credit, debit or smartphone transactions process fairly quickly. And you can check your accounts immediately after the purchase to know how much you have left to spend. But check payments aren’t posted to your account until the recipient cashes the check. If you forget to log a payment or miscalculate your remaining balance, you could overdraw your account.

Writing them is inefficient. Imagine you and a friend simultaneously enter separate checkout lines at the store. Hers is for customers paying with cash and yours is for those with checks. Chances are good your friend will be waiting in the car for awhile before you finish writing your check.

Checks can be convenient

If your checking account offers free checks, you might as well order a batch. And even if it doesn’t, it might be handy to have some available, but don’t overpay for them. That may mean ordering them from somewhere other than your bank or credit union.

Tony Armstrong is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: tony@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @tonystrongarm.

Updated March 23, 2017.