A Guide to Using Personal Checks
Checks are still a popular way to pay, even as electronic payments become easier. Of the billions of checks written annually, some are paychecks, insurance benefits, and Social Security payments—but many are personal checks.
What Are Personal Checks?
Like all checks, personal checks are pieces of paper for making payments. To write a check, you fill in information about who you want to pay, provide the check to the payee, and your bank eventually sends money to the recipient’s account electronically. Personal checks pay from personal accounts—they don’t belong to businesses, governments, or other organizations.
A personal account is an account for an individual or several individuals (like a married couple using a joint account, for example).
Why It Matters
You can use checks to pay for almost anything. As long as the recipient (or payee) agrees to accept a check, that’s all that matters. If you buy groceries, pay insurance premiums, or pay rent, a personal check is probably an acceptable form of payment.
Not always accepted: Personal checks can be problematic. Because they draw from the account of an individual (as opposed to a government or business that presumably has substantial resources), they aren’t always an acceptable form of payment. If the person writing the check doesn’t have sufficient funds in her account, the check will bounce, and the payment does not go through.
“Guaranteed” alternatives: For some transactions—especially large purchases like home sales—a more trustworthy form of payment is required. Sellers want to be confident that they’ll receive funds, so they might require bank wires, cashier’s checks, or money orders (but even those can be used fraudulently). Likewise, if you receive a payment by personal check, it’s wise to be sure the check is good before you spend that money (you should verify that every check is good before spending funds—but it’s especially important with personal checks).
How to Spot One
Personal checks are often smaller than other types of checks and are generally written by hand. Still, large computer-generated checks might be personal checks. Plus, in the age of online bill payment, banks often print and send checks out from individual accounts, and those checks can carry the same risks as handwritten personal checks. Another way to identify a personal check is to look at the account owner information: If you see an individual’s name, it’s a personal check.
Cashing Personal Checks
Because they are riskier than government-issued checks, personal checks can be difficult to cash. The best way to cash one is to go to the bank where the check writer has an account (you can see the bank information on the front of the check). A teller at the bank can see whether or not funds are available and update the account immediately.
You can also try cashing personal checks at your bank or credit union, but don’t be surprised if you only receive the first $200 or so immediately, with the rest paid to you over the following days. If your bank does give you more, it’s not because they know the check is good—they're just being optimistic, and they expect you to repay if the check bounces.
You are responsible for any deposits you make to your account, so be careful when spending money after depositing a personal check.
Besides banks and credit unions, there are very few places that cash personal checks. Some retailers and check cashing outfits might cash small checks, sometimes for a fee.
How to Get More Personal Checks
If you write checks, you’ll eventually run out and need to obtain more. You can order personal checks from your bank, order from an online check printer, or even print your own checks. Learn more about those options for ordering and what to consider as you choose.
If you’re tired of ordering checks—not to mention writing them and getting them into the mail on time—investigate ways to pay electronically.
Alternatives to Writing Checks
There are numerous ways to pay for things and send money. Checks are just one option, and they might not be the best tool for the job.
Security: Electronic services allow you to send funds securely. They eliminate the potential for mail theft, and you don’t expose your account number to everybody who sees the check.
Cost: Online transfers and electronic payments are free, in many cases. Plus, you don’t need to pay for postage.
Organizing: Electronic payments are easy to track—there’s no need to record every transaction in a check register by hand. You’ll have a record in your bank or app, and you can often export those transactions to other systems.
Instead of writing a check, try one of the following:
- Pay for purchases with a debit card (online and in person). Alternatively, use your credit card for better security, and pay off the balance every month.
- Send money to friends and family electronically using apps like Venmo, PayPal, and the like.
- Use your bank’s online bill payment system to make regular payments.
The methods above can use the same money you’d use when you write a check. The funds come right out of your checking account, but you don’t use a piece of paper.