In today’s world of Venmo, cash apps, debit cards and credit cards, writing a check can seem like an archaic practice. Even the Social Security Administration, a monolith of payment distributions, stopped mailing checks to its recipients in 2013. But a centuries-old practice doesn’t just go away.
A 2016 Federal Reserve study found that although check payments are on the decline, people still write about 17 billion checks annually. Bank of America, the second-largest bank in the country, claimed its customers wrote over a billion checks in the same year. And of millennials — one of the strongest consumer demographics — 42% still use checks, according to Qualtrics.
However you slice it, checks are here to stay, and it’d behoove you to know how to write one. Knowing might even help you avoid payment issues and problems with your checking account. Keep reading for GOBankingRates’ deep dive into how to write out a check.
In this guide, you’ll learn the following:
- Instructions on How To Write a Check
- What Routing, Account and Check Numbers Mean
- How To Balance a Checkbook
- Answers to Common Check-Writing FAQs
Check Out: 10 Best Checking Accounts of 2019
Although online banking has made paper checks less common, knowing how to write a check correctly is a handy financial skill. When writing a check, just remembers DABSMS:
- Date it
- Address it
- Box it
- Spell it out
- Memo it
- Sign it
Step 1. Date the Check
Date the check on the proper line near the top with the correct month, day and year. You can postdate a check, which you’ll read about later in the guide.
Step 2. Address the Check
Fill out the person or company to whom you’re giving the check in the “Pay to the order of” section. If you don’t, someone else can insert a different name or alter the check in some other way. If you make out a check to two people and want either one to be able to cash it, separate the names with “or.” If you want both to cash it together, use the word “and.”
Step 3. Box It
Write the amount of the check in the amount box, using numerals and starting after the pre-printed dollar sign. For example, you would write “10.50” in the box for a $10.50 check.
Step 4. Spell It Out
Write out the check amount in words on the payment line, spelling out the words and using a fraction to indicate any cents. For example, a check for $10.50 would say “Ten dollars and 50/100.” For larger amounts, don’t use the word “and” in the dollar amount, but include it between the dollars and cents. For example, don’t write the amount as “Five hundred and forty dollars and 10/100.” The correct way is “Five hundred forty dollars and 10/100.”
Step 5. Memo It (Optional)
A bank won’t reject a check if the memo isn’t filled out, but it does provide context between you and the payee. If anything, it can be handy for your records. Fill out the memo line with a note about the purpose of the check. You can also use it as a spot to write in a company account number if your check is a bill payment.
Step 6. Sign It
Sign the check on the signature line in the bottom right corner of the check. Fill out all the other information before adding your signature, as signing it means you’ve authorized payment. If you sign a blank check, someone else could fill out the other parts and cash it.
When you’re filling out a check, record the check number and other information — the date, payee and amount — in the check register included in your box of checks. If you neglect this step, you might forget the check information details and have trouble balancing your checkbook or end up overdrawn. Carbon-copy checks automatically capture the details for you.
Find Out: How To Cash a Check
You might’ve noticed the string of chunky numbers at the bottom of a check — fun fact: The font is called MICR e13b and is necessary for a bank’s optical character recognition systems to recognize the check — but what do they mean? Have you ever wondered why you can’t just, say, hack the account of whoever gave you check? Keep reading for a breakdown of what those numbers signify.
A routing number is essentially how different financial institutions recognize each other so funds can move between account locations. Although checks print your routing number on them, you could still be asked to provide those digits when making major transactions online or by phone.
In terms of check writing, a routing number indicates where the money is coming from so a recipient can either deposit the check in their own bank or cash it out.
The account number is exactly what it sounds like: This number signifies which of your personal accounts funds will be deposited from. The account number on the check only indicates that particular account, and funds written on the check can only be withdrawn from that account. You cannot, for example, write a check to somebody with the intent that the funds will be withdrawn from a separate account.
The check number is just a number to identify the individual check, which mostly helps you keep your own records. This number is usually either in the top-right corner of a check or at the bottom right corner of a check.
Learn: How To Endorse a Check
Balancing a checkbook, also called a check register, can feel as outmoded as writing a check, but it’s still a useful financial skill to have. Balancing a checkbook means having a more accurate record of your transactions, which helps when assessing your money challenges and goals. For example, if your checkbook says you have $500 in your account but your actual account balance is higher, what’s causing the difference? A balanced checkbook will help you answer that question.
Balancing requires just basic subtraction and addition. Start with whatever balance you have in your account, and record every transaction as a deposit (income) or withdrawal (expenditure or payment) and then record the new balance resultant from each transaction. Also indicate the check number and who you paid, or who paid you, in your checkbook. Labeling transactions, like memoing, helps provides context for your checks.
Basically, the act of balancing a checkbook requires computing the total transactions — try to consistently balance your checkbook so you have an up-to-date figure every time your account funds change — and matching the leftover figure to your account balance.
If it’s not equivalent, you’ll need to do some digging as to where your balancing went wrong. Here are some things to look out for:
- Double-check your math.
- Keep receipts in case you need to reference transactions.
- Subtract the balance of the checkbook from your account. The difference may be the missed transaction you’re looking for.
- Record any interest earned in your account.
You might have some questions as you get started writing checks. Here are answers to some common ones:
How Do I Void a Check?
If you make an error while writing a check, write “VOID” in large letters that cover the entire face of the check. This renders it unable to be used. Make a note in the check register to indicate that you voided it out.
How Do I Postdate a Check?
Postdating a check simply requires that you fill out a later date on the check, with the intent that the recipient will cash it on or after that day. This could be done for a number of reasons. For example, the funds on the check won’t be available until that later date.
However, a postdated checked can be cashed early and you may suffer a penalty if the check is bounced. You can give your bank a heads-up to avoid this scenario.
How Do I Write a Check With Cents and How Do I Write One With 0 Cents?
If you’re not sure how to write a check with cents, remember to use numbers in the amount box and to use a fraction on the payment line. For example: “$10.50” in the amount box and “Ten dollars and 50/100” on the payment line.
As for how to write a check with 0 cents, just use two zeros in the amount box and leave off the cents or use 00/100 in the payment line. For example: “$60.00” in the amount box and “Sixty and 00/100 dollars” or “Sixty and no/cents” or just “Sixty” and then draw a line through the payment line.
How Do I Stop Payment on a Check?
To prevent someone from cashing a check after you’ve already given it to them, contact your financial institution to stop the payment. Many financial institutions charge a fee for this service.
Can I Write a Check to Myself?
You can write a check to yourself by writing in your own name as the payee on the “Pay to the order of” line. It’s a simple way to withdraw money from your checking account. When you cash the check, you’ll endorse it by signing your name on the back. You can also write a check to “Cash,” which allows anyone to cash it. Don’t do this unless you’re going to immediately cash it yourself.
Do I Need To Use Ink When Writing a Check?
Not only should you use ink to write a check, you should stick with blue ink when possible. Blue ink is recommended because most bank scanners are unable to detect unusual colors. Even a check written in red ink may be nullified.
Blue is preferred over black ink because it’s a harder color to reproduce; a check element in black ink could also be photocopied, for example.
What Happens If I Write a Check and Don’t Have Enough Money in My Checking Account To Cover It?
When you write a check and your account doesn’t have sufficient funds, your bank might pay it and cause an overdraft on your account. Otherwise, it might refuse payment and return it to the payee. This is known as bouncing a check. Doing this incurs fees, and if you do it frequently, the bank might close your checking account and you might have trouble opening a new account elsewhere. Many banks offer overdraft protection, which protects you from this issue, for a fee, and the bank will impose a limit on the maximum amount it will cover.
Find Out: How To Avoid Overdraft Fees
Can I Address a Check to a Dead Person?
You actually can do this, although the person on the receiving end cannot deposit the check into a personal account. Most requirements following posthumous recipients involve a legal process as well as an estate account.
Can the Check Recipient Hack My Account?
With your bank’s routing number and your own account number listed on the check, you might wonder if there’s anything stopping a check recipient from being able to hack your bank account. The answer is: basically, no. Someone may be able to access your funds with just the information on the front of your check. GOBankingRates’ recommendation is to use checks sparingly and only address them to someone you trust.
Common Mistakes When Writing Checks
First, let’s cover some common-sense ground. Sometimes it’s a slip of the pen, sometimes it’s forgetfulness — but there’s a bunch of things you should double-check before signing a check. Review your check to make sure none of these common mistakes apply:
- Wrong name
- Wrong date
- Wrong assignee
- Wrong amount
- Wrong format
- Incomplete field
- Funds in your account do not cover the amount on the check
And remember, if you make a mistake on a check, you need not begin a new one. Simply cross out the mistake and put your initials near it, then continue with writing. However, if it’s a glaring error that makes the check complicated to read, start anew.
If you’re looking for alternatives to personal checks, read on to learn the difference between a cashier’s check and money order.
More on Banking
- Best Second-Chance Checking Accounts
- 9 Types of Checking Accounts
- 2019 Banking Report: Many Americans Don’t Understand the Basics of Banking
- How To Make ATM Deposits to Your Bank Account
Barb Nefer contributed to the reporting of this article.