With mobile wallets, online checking accounts and person-to-person electronic payments all the rage, and direct deposit old news at this point, the personal paper check is beginning to look understandably silly and cumbersome. Why, with all this technology at our fingertips do we need to actually write something out, then hand it to someone who must then go to a bank branch or ATM to deposit it. By giving someone a check, you're basically assigning them an errand. Thanks, but no thanks!
Soon, perhaps, writing paper checks will seem as outdated as waxing one's mustache, or wearing bow ties and suspenders. But suspenders are a completely practical way of holding one's pants up, even if the look is a bit affected. Similarly, we need not throw the paper check into the dustbin of history. There are plenty of reasons why they're still worthwhile. Here are five of them:
1. You can give them to anyone.
Not everyone has a smartphone. You'll look like a jerk pulling out your smartphone when the plumber gives you a bill. Plenty of people who hand you bills work jobs that require phones built more durably and more practically than you and your friends do. They won't have Square, or any other payment dongle, and a person-to-person payment might be hard to bring back to the shop to close out paperwork. Not everyone is capable of, or comfortable with, these newer forms of payment. So by having checks you'll be able to pay in any situation.
Similarly, you can't expect all of your friends to have smartphones just yet, nor can you expect them to want to go through the trouble of setting up some special person-to-person functionality on their bank account or giving you their account number. Despite what the commercials imply, person-to-person payments are not a popular way to split the cost of dinner with your buddies. Checks work. Everyone knows how to deal with them, even if it means an errand (and with mobile check deposit, it doesn’t).
2. You can write checks to unnamed recipients.
It's considered a risky check to write, because anyone can cash or deposit them, but sometimes you won't know who to make your check out to, and so, right there in the “Pay to the Order Of” line, you simply write "cash." Whoever needs to deposit the check can now do so. Unfortunately, if they lose the check, so can anyone else.
It goes without saying that you cannot pay a credit, debit or person-to-person payment to an unnamed recipient.
3. You can post-date them.
While you can certainly create a person-to-person payment that posts at a later date, there's always the possibility that the other party can cancel the payment. And, yes, you can stop payment on a check, too, but a check is a signed contract, and writing a check is essentially a contract that states: I will pay this amount on this date to this person.
Post-dating a check is a crude form of financing a broke lifestyle, but it works for both parties. The recipient knows she can deposit it on the day indicated or you'll be in big trouble (they have your address), and the payer knows that he had better get his ducks in a row—there's paper evidence of all of this.
4. You can personalize them.
While you can certainly be tasteless with your check personalization—clowns with balloons, for example —there are some beautiful options for consumers who would like their checks to stand out. Granted, these are probably outnumbered by the hokey designs, but at the very least this is a potential source for enjoyment in the otherwise dry world of payments. And speaking of that...
5. You can write cheesy jokes in the memo field.
This is low on the list, for good reason, but the human element that paper checks bring into banking make it fun to add inane comments to the memo field of a check. "For his Bar Mitzvah" is a personal favorite, especially when writing checks to grown men. One time, a bank teller congratulated an old roommate upon seeing a rent check I had written to him. A small victory, and a pretty unimpressive prank, but at least checks provide the opportunity to have a bit of fun in a way that electronic payments do not.
And what could be better than having a little fun by finding an old-fashioned, cheesy way to engage in financial transactions?
Willy Staley is a staff writer and columnist for MyBankTracker.com. His columns cover banking, policy, and culture.