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Published: Jan 27, 2020 6 min read
Illustration by Jade Schulz

Welcome to Dollar Scholar, a personal finance newsletter written by a 27-year-old who’s still figuring it out: me.

Every week, I talk to experts about a money question I have, whether that’s “What if I don't have a 401(k)? or “How many credit cards do I need?” As I learn, I share simple ways to improve your financial life… and post cute dog photos.

This is (part of) the 26th issue. Check it out below, then subscribe to get future editions of Dollar Scholar every Wednesday.

Most people get more mature and distinguished with time, like wine or cheese or Ryan Reynolds. But not me. The older I get, the weirder I’m becoming.

Like, it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized I unironically adore tie-dye. I wear limited-edition sneakers with puppies on them. I’m super into that glassblowing competition show on Netflix, and I can’t stop laughing at stupid Star Wars sequel memes.

It is with that spirit that I ordered personal checks from my bank a couple of years ago. When I went on the website to refill my supply, I found out that plain checks cost the same as themed ones, so naturally, I chose the goofiest style I could find. My ~Ocean Beauty~ checks feature an underwater seascape, complete with technicolor coral, majestic sea turtles, killer whales and playful dolphins. They are ridiculous. I love them.

Unfortunately, I almost never get to show them off. I’m a debit card gal; I only write one check once a month for rent. But given how awesome mine are, should I be using checks more often?

First I decided to consult Sarah Grotta, the director of debit and alternative products advisory service at Mercator Advisory Group. I needed to know about the state of checks: who uses them, why and what for. Grotta told me that check use is declining due to services like Zelle, Venmo and PayPal, but the medium certainly isn’t dead. In fact, the Federal Reserve put out a report in December saying there were 14.5 billion check payments in 2018.

“Every once in a while, we still do need to use them,” Grotta says.

It’s mostly a convenience thing — not necessarily for the customer, but for the person they’re paying. For example, Grotta said a dog walker or landscaper might prefer a check “because they’ve done it that way forever, that’s what they’re comfortable with and that’s what their accounting software uses.”

That’s the category my landlord probably falls into. Changing his system to process other payment types would be a hassle, so he’s just staying the course. (Such a modern approach.)

Jenny Johnson, director at The Clearing House, said another benefit of checks is that people can send information with them. Think: If a business is paying out an invoice, they can physically put a check in an envelope with a copy of the invoice reflecting that the payment’s been made.

On the consumer side, there are a ton of stores that still accept checks, including Macy’s, Target, Dollar Tree, Publix and Staples. Johnson told me there aren’t really quote-unquote “good” and “bad” times to use checks to pay for something… other than if there’s a long line of people waiting behind me.

“It’s about your choice and what you’re comfortable with and what the situation is,” she adds.

The biggest drag is the delay. Check processing has sped up a lot in the last couple of years, thanks to the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, but it can still take a couple of days for my checks to clear or for the money to actually be moved over.

One thing I do need to watch out for, though, is fraud. According to the American Bankers Association, check fraud made up nearly half of deposit account fraud losses in 2018, costing $1.3 billion. The FDIC has a whole guide to spotting fake checks — which are often involved in lottery and sudden riches scams, online auctions and mystery shopper hoaxes.

To stay safe, Johnson said I should always use permanent ink pens to write checks, avoid abbreviating 2020 and more.

“Physically controlling the check is important,” she says. “That includes something as simple as don’t leave your payment to the electric company in the mailbox with your red flag up.”

Bottom line: If I want to whip out my ~Ocean Beauty~ checks more often, I should go for it. We’ve got lots of payment options these days, so I can do pretty much whatever I want.

Besides, my check design does NOT matter. The experts told me the bank is just going to scan my check anyway, and when it does the background will fall away. “It has absolutely no impact on how the funds move,” Grotta says.

Sea turtle transactions, here I come.

Photo by Peter Ardito

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