Balance Checking Accounts - Step by Step Guide

1
Get Balanced

Finger pointing to balance in checkbook
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It is important to balance checking accounts regularly. Doing so will help you:

  • Identify mistakes that you or the bank made
  • Catch identity theft
  • Avoid bounced checks (and manage overdraft fees)

If you find yourself bouncing checks, be sure to do this anytime you're about to spend money from your checking account (before paying bills or swiping your debit card at a store, for example).

Why Balance Your Checking Account?

The goals of balancing your account are:

  • Make sure you know how much money you have (you can also just check your account balance online, with an app, at an ATM, by phone, or by text for a quick answer)
  • Make sure the bank has not lost money or overcharged you
  • Match your records with the bank's records
  • Catch mistakes before it's too late!

Get Organized

To get started, gather everything you'll need to balance the books. The easiest way to do this is online - you'll just need your computer and account information. There are several templates and spreadsheets available to help.

If you use pen and paper, you'll need the following:

  • Most recent bank statement
  • Check register (see What is a Check Register?)
  • Calculator (or just use your computer)
  • A blank piece of paper to work with

Start by writing your month-end account balance from the bank statement on your piece of paper next to the phrase "Bank Balance".

Compare your Check Register to your Statement

Look through every item on your check register, and make sure it includes everything from your bank statement. Place a small checkmark next to matching items (put the checkmarks on both the bank statement and the check register).

If anything is missing from your check register, add it (unless you think it's a bank mistake, of course). This includes ATM fees, overdraft fees, interest you've earned, and so on. If anything looks funny, write the date and amount at the bottom of your piece of paper so you remember to research it.

Add up all the deposits and withdrawals so you know how much you think you should have.

Find Outstanding Transactions

Next, look through your check register for any transaction that does not have a checkmark next to it. These transactions are items that did not appear on your bank statement - otherwise you would have checked them off.

Most likely, these are outstanding checks. Outstanding checks are checks that you have written to somebody, but they have not deposited (or the outstanding check didn't make it's way through the banking system by the time your statement was printed).

Add all of the outstanding deposits (direct deposit from your payroll, deposits that you mailed to the bank but which have not appeared yet, etc). Write this number on your sheet of paper next to "Deposits".

Then add up all outstanding withdrawals (outstanding checks you've written, automatic electronic withdrawals that you know have happened since the statement was printed, etc). Write this number on your sheet of paper next to "Withdrawals".

Run the Numbers

You've got several numbers on your sheet of paper. Now let's work with 'em.

Using your calculator, perform the following:

  1. Start with zero
  2. Add "Bank Balance"
  3. Add "Deposits"
  4. Subtract "Withdrawals"

The result should be the exact amount you show in your check register.

2
Fix Mistakes and Problems

Solving the Problem
Lucy Lambriex / Getty Images

If the numbers don't match, you need to figure out why. If you find fraud or a bank error, contact the bank immediately - otherwise you might have to live with the problem.

You're often protected from transactions that you had nothing to do with. However, you may need to act fast: the longer you wait, the greater your responsibility becomes. If you wait more than two months to find and report a problem, you might have to absorb the loss.

Fortunately, errors and fraud are relatively rare. In most cases, the numbers won't match because of:

  • Arithmetic mistakes
  • You missed a fee or interest payment
  • Transposed numbers or "fat fingers" (345 becomes 354)

3
Get a Head Start

Businesswoman working on smartphone in office
Quick text updates throughout the month help you keep tabs on your accounts. Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

The key to staying balanced is making it easy on yourself. That means finding a way to get information in a way you'll use it, and being able to hit the ground running. If you have to spend time every month getting reacquainted with the process and preparing everything, you're less likely to balance your checkbook.

There's no best way to do this, so figure out what works for you. If you want to use paper, that's fine. Want to build a spreadsheet? Great.

It's also nice to know about transactions as they occur, which can reduce the amount of time you spend researching each month. Set up text alerts on your bank account so that know when big electronic withdrawals hit (they'll be fresh in your mind when it comes time to balance the books). Alerts also make it easier to detect fraud and errors, which can save you time.