In today’s largely digital financial system, payments are constantly whizzing back and forth between banks, stores, customers and anyone else using PayPal or Venmo or a debit card. In fact, for a lot of younger people, between direct deposit, autopay for bills, a budgeting app and a rewards credit card, they could be earning and spending thousands of dollars a month without actually physically putting eyes on a penny of it.
That can create some serious issues on those rare occasions where today’s lightning-fast computer network isn’t up to the task. Maybe your identity is stolen and you have to rely on traditional methods to pay bills for a month or two while you’re sorting things out. Or perhaps you just have enough mistakes in your credit history that your landlord isn’t comfortable accepting a check. If you’re used to making payments with a flick of the wrist on your smartphone, you might arrive at moments like these and suddenly feel totally helpless.
That’s why it’s important for everyone — no matter how plugged in — to understand the basics of the money order. But while frequently a relic of times past, money orders can also be an absolute necessity for a variety of circumstances where only cash will do or you simply cannot write a check. So, here’s a look at everything you need to know about sending a money order so that — should the day ever come — you will find yourself with a functional workaround when the newest pieces of the financial system aren’t up to the task.
This guide to money orders will cover the following:
- What Is a Money Order?
- When Should a Money Order Be Used?
- Best Places To Get a Money Order Near You
- How To Buy a Money Order
- Where To Cash a Money Order
- Watch Out for Money Order Scams!
- Alternatives to Money Orders
- Money Orders Can Be a Necessary, Important Tool
Perhaps the easiest way to think of a money order is as a prepaid check. When you get a money order, it will include both an amount and a specific payee who is the only one who can legally cash it. The main difference is that, unlike for your checks, you have to pay the full amount of the money order up front when you purchase it.
By collecting all the money necessary to settle the money order in advance, money orders represent guaranteed funds. Whereas accepting a personal check requires trusting the person writing it has their financial house in order to the point that they can cover the amount, a money order eliminates that need. The money has already changed hands, so it’s as if it’s waiting there for the person the money order is made out to.
Here’s an example of what money order looks like:
Money orders aren’t expensive, but they do tend to cost significantly more than writing a check or using an app, so they’re likely only going to be the best option in circumstances where other ways to transmit funds just aren’t possible. There’s a number of reasons why many Americans are still using money orders with regularity:
- When you’re unsure of who you’re paying. Money orders don’t include a bank account number or routing number like your checks do, so there’s less chance someone could use one to access your bank account illegally. If you have concerns about where your check will wind up, using a money order could be a good way to make a payment while still keeping your account information safe.
- When you don’t have a checking account. The 2017 FDIC survey found that there are still some 14.1 million American adults without a bank account. That means anything from paying rent every month to sending the IRS your tax payments is going to be that much more difficult. However, as long as you have cash, a money order should be an option where you can normally only pay with a check or digital payment.
- When the recipient needs cash. It might seem like you’re never in a situation where only cash will do and you can’t cash a check, but there are definitely occasions where that ends up being the case — especially if you like to travel. So, if Aunt Carol has somehow managed to get herself stranded in some far-flung country where her credit cards won’t work, a money order might be the only way to safely send her money for a flight home.
- You struggle with balancing your checkbook. Not everyone is great at budgeting, but if you’re the sort of person who is routinely writing bad checks because you can’t keep up with your finances, the money order can be your best friend. Because you have to pay the full amount upfront, you can use it as a way to keep your own habits in check and only send out payments you can afford.
- You forgot your checkbook. In the event that you absolutely need to give someone a check and don’t have your checkbook on you, you can probably find somewhere close by that will sell you a money order instead. It will cost more, but if you’re a long drive from home, it might be worth it just to pop into a Walmart or post office and get a money order.
Compare: Cashier’s Check vs. Money Order
There’s an abundance of places to get money orders. There are basically three organizations selling money orders: MoneyGram, Western Union and the U.S. Postal Service.
However, Western Union and MoneyGram situate their agents in a variety of local businesses — mostly convenience stores and supermarkets — so you’re probably never more than a mile or two from an abundance of places where you can get a money order. Check-cashing services will usually also offer money orders given that they’re catering mostly to customers without a bank account.
|Where To Get a Money Order
|U.S. Postal Service||$1.25 up to $500
$1.70 for $500-$1,000
|Walmart||$0.88 maximum, but fees vary by location|
|Banks and Credit Unions||Varies by location/bank, but many banks charge $5 per order|
Beyond the locations listed in the table, many independent convenience stores will also sell money orders through MoneyGram, Western Union or another agent.
Find Out: How Much Is a CVS Money Order?
Getting a money order should be a relatively simple process, especially if you have cash. Once you’ve located a bank, post office or store where money orders are sold, you fill out a form and hand it over along with the money for the amount you’re sending plus the cost of the money order. Then, you should be issued your money order and you can send it along to the recipient.
If you’re worried about how to fill out a money order form, don’t be — it’s a simple process. Money order forms will ask for the name of the recipient; be careful to get the spelling correct. You’ll also include your own address in case someone needs to track you down, and if you’re using your money order to pay bills you should include your account number as well.
As far as the method of payment, different locations could have different policies, but you will generally always be able to use cash and/or a debit card. You most likely cannot pay for your money order with a check as they typically take a few days to clear and money orders involve guaranteed funds. Some locations might allow you to pay with a credit card, but that’s usually treated as a cash advance by your credit card company, usually meaning you’ll owe much higher interest rates than a normal purchase and pay a transaction fee.
If you’re on the receiving end of a money order, don’t worry: Cashing it is a lot like cashing a check and many places provide this service. A bank or credit union is probably your best bet — especially if you’re planning to deposit the funds — but virtually anywhere that will cash a check for you will also cash your money order. Supermarkets, convenience stores and check cashing locations could all work; just ask a clerk if they’ll cash your money order. However, some stores will charge an additional fee for the service.
To cash your money order, you’ll need the order and a valid picture ID to confirm your identity. Once you’re at the location where you’re going to cash it, endorse the back like you would a check and present it to the clerk along with your ID.
Of course, although money orders are probably more reliable than checks, they’re also a common source of various money scams, so you should be careful when purchasing or cashing one. Most of these scams involve the use of a fraudulent money order and tricking you into sending money to the fraudster prior to discovering it’s not real. In some cases, a good fake might not be discovered by banks for several days, so there’s usually a window of time where con artists can prey on your belief that your “money order” is a good as cash. Money order scams include the following:
- Using a fake money order for payment: Not unlike passing a bad check, fraudsters might give a money order as payment, leave with their goods and count on you and your bank needing at least a few days to figure out it’s a fake, at which point they’re long gone.
- Fake returns: In this scam, the con artist will use a money order to pay for something — usually an online purchase — only to reach out with a sob story about how they can’t pay anymore. They’ll then ask you to keep a small portion of the amount for your trouble but transfer the rest back to them. If you make the transfer prior to discovering that the money order is worthless, they’ll already have your money.
- Fake rental: A different version of the fake return can be done with a security deposit for a short-term rental or apartment. Once again, they’ll present you with a fake money order, cancel and then ask for a partial refund — counting on you to transfer back the money prior to realizing it’s not a real money order.
- Fake deposit: Con artists might pose as someone who doesn’t have a bank account and ask you to deposit a money order for them and give them the money. Of course, by the time it’s clear it was a fake, they’re long gone. This can also take the form of fake freelance jobs that ask you to deposit money orders and then transfer along the funds to another entity. Even if the first few are legit, they’ll eventually trick you into sending a large amount of money for a money order that’s not real.
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There’s a number of different options for sending money to someone other than money orders, some of which will cost less and offer many of the same advantages. Alternatives to money orders include:
- Personal checks: Any time you can use a personal check rather than a money order, it’s likely going to be the better choice. Although your bank might charge you a per-check fee, it’s usually not more than a nickel, whereas a money order will usually cost at least 10 times that much. That said, checks do have a lot of your personal information on them — including your bank account number — so you might pay extra for security if you’re unsure about how reliable the recipient is.
- Cashier’s checks: The differences between a cashier’s check and a money order are pretty slight as they generally serve the same purpose. Cashier’s checks are issued by banks, taking the money to cover the check from your account and transferring it to the bank. Cashier’s checks are much less convenient as they’re only issued through banks and they’re much harder to replace, but they are a little bit more secure than a money order.
- Certified check: A certified check is also similar to both money orders and cashier’s checks, offering essentially the same service with guaranteed funds and a specific payee. Certified checks are simply personal checks in which the bank has confirmed that the signature is genuine and that you have the money in your account to cover the necessary amount. That does mean that — unlike a money order or cashier’s check — the money hasn’t actually left your account prior to the check getting deposited or cashed, so there could be a little bit more risk for the recipient as someone could empty the account in question prior to the check getting cashed.
- Wire transfer: Money orders and checks still involve passing along a physical slip to the recipient for them to cash or deposit. Wire transfers, however, will send cash directly from one online account to another, so it’s more secure in a certain sense. The cost of a wire transfer, however, is typically much higher than that for a money order.
- Electronic payments: As noted earlier, the ability to transfer money to individuals or organizations electronically is easier than ever, so there’s a variety of services that let you conduct your business entirely online, from PayPal to Venmo to a simple e-check. You’re swapping concerns about cybersecurity for concerns about a money order getting lost or faked, but that’s up to you as a customer. That said, where possible, it’s hard to beat the low costs and convenience of electronic payments.
Even though a lot of people might see themselves as living a life that simply doesn’t — and won’t — need money orders, you cannot know what the future holds. When the day comes that you really need to have someone send you hard currency — or have a loved one who needs you to send them money — you should be ready to use a money order. What’s more, for the millions of unbanked or underbanked people living in America, the money order is a crucial, essential process that allows them to pay bills and send money despite not having access to a checking account.
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