Money Order Basics

What is a Money Order and How does one Work?

Money orders are considered a “safe” form of payment. Whether you’re buying or selling something, a money order might be your best option for payment. However, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of using money orders – and when other payment methods are a better choice.

What is a Money Order?

A money order is a paper document, similar to a check, used for making payments. Money orders are prepaid, meaning they are only issued after a buyer pays for the money order using cash or another form of guaranteed funds.

Because the ​issuer has already been paid, money orders are considered relatively safe “guaranteed” forms of payment – they shouldn’t bounce like personal checks might.

The name of a payee (the recipient of the money order) and the name of a financial institution that issued the money order will appear on every money order. When you buy a money order, you’ll specify who should receive the funds by filling in the name of the person or organization that you wish to pay. This makes it difficult for thieves to steal the instrument and get the money.

Be aware that money orders are sometimes used in scams, but they’re also used for legitimate purposes.

Where to buy: money orders are available from several sources, including:

  • Supermarkets and convenience stores
  • Banks and credit unions
  • Check cashing, money transfer, and payday loan stores
  • United States Post offices

For more details, see Where to get a Money Order.

How to Buy: to buy a money order, you’ll need to pay with guaranteed funds. At your bank, you can transfer funds from your checking or savings account. At a retailer, you’ll pay with cash, a debit card transaction using your PIN, or a cash advance on your credit card (credit card cash advances are expensive, so avoid this option).

Tell the money order issuer how much you’d like a money order for, and they’ll print the document for you. You’ll need to write in the name of your payee on the line that says “Pay to the order of.” See detailed instructions for using a money order.

Keep your receipt and any details about your purchase. If something goes wrong, you’ll need that information to track or cancel the money order.

Cost: expect to pay a small fee to get a money order. Fees are generally least expensive at supermarkets and convenience stores – around one dollar or so. Banks and credit unions often charge five to ten dollars to issue a money order. For more details, see a list of locations with pricing.

Purchase amounts: money orders have a maximum limit – often $1,000 per money order. This makes them suitable for smaller purchases. If you need more than that, you can buy multiple money orders (and pay multiple fees) or you can use an alternative method like a cashier’s check.

Getting the money: if you receive a money order, you can cash it or deposit it just like a check. To do so, you’ll generally endorse the back of the money order by signing your name. Money orders are best cashed at the same location they were bought from (a Western Union or MoneyGram desk, or the bank or credit union that issued them).

If you don’t need cash, it’s wise to deposit the funds to a bank account for safe keeping.

Why Use Money Orders?

Money orders are one of many options for making payments. So when does it make the most sense to use a money order?

Alternative to cash: a money order can be made payable to a specific person, which reduces the risk of theft. If a money order goes missing (or gets stolen) it can be cancelled and re-issued.

If you lose cash, it’s gone for good. Mailing cash is simply too risky, so money orders are a good option when you’re mailing a payment. What’s more, you can track the payment and prove that your recipient actually got paid.

No bank account needed: if you don’t have a bank account – whether you don’t want one or you can’t get one – money orders might be your best option for making payments.

You can pay utility bills, insurance premiums, and mobile phone bills with money orders each month. However, the cost of buying money orders adds up (and getting money orders takes time) – which might motivate you to open a local bank account.

Keep your information secret: when you write a personal check, that check contains sensitive information. For example, checks often show your home address, phone number, bank account numbers, and the names of any joint account owners (such as your spouse or partner, if any). If you don’t know or trust the person you’re paying, a money order helps protect that information.

Required by seller: some sellers require that you pay with a money order. They don’t want to take the chance of accepting a personal check, and it’s common to request money orders. A cashier’s check would offer the same security, but money orders seem to be preferred.

Send money overseas: if you need to send funds abroad, money orders are a safe and inexpensive way to do so. The money order can easily be converted to local currency, and USPS money orders are well-regarded in numerous countries around the world.

Alternatives to Money Orders

Money orders aren’t the only way to pay. There are several alternatives, some of which offer “guaranteed” funds (and some are even safer than money orders).

Cashier’s checks are similar to money orders – they’re paper documents issued to a specific payee and guaranteed by the issuer. However, banks and credit unions offer cashier’s checks – not convenience stores and money shops. Cashier’s checks are available for larger dollar amounts, so they’re a better choice for large transactions. Learn more about how cashier’s checks compare to money orders.

A wire transfer is an electronic transfer of guaranteed funds. Again, sellers can be confident – even more confident than if they get a money order – that they’re getting paid. Wire transfers are more expensive (about $35 in most cases) and more cumbersome, but they can’t be faked or cancelled like money orders. Learn more about using wire transfers to send money.

Electronic payments of non-guaranteed funds are also an option. If you’re just paying bills, your bank’s online bill payment service can send funds almost anywhere – usually for free. Even if you don’t have a bank account, many prepaid debit cards offer the same service, or you can pay using your card number. Online services and apps can also send money (typically only with people you trust) at no charge.

Personal checks, while old-fashioned, are often good enough. Billers like utility companies and phone service providers often accept personal checks. Online sellers and others (such as strangers you deal with on Craigslist) might request a money order for added security.

Watch for Scams

Money orders are generally considered safe, but they can be used in fraud. In fact, the perception that they are safe is exactly what makes them perfect for scams.

Watching for common red flags will help you avoid trouble. To be safe, never send “extra” money back to somebody who pays too much with a money order – it’s almost certainly a fake. Verify funds on any money order that you have doubts about before you take it to your bank. Finally, avoid paying anybody with a money order if you think you’ll ever need to reverse the payment – you can only cancel before the money order has been cashed.

Limitations of Money Orders

Now that you know the basics, you can appreciate the pros and cons of using money orders. Some of the main drawbacks of money orders are described below.

Maximum limits: money orders are generally issued with a maximum of $1,000. Some money order issuers use an even lower limit (for example international USPS money orders are limited to $700). If the purchase amount is more than $1,000, multiple money orders will be required, which can be cumbersome – and just as expensive as other forms of payment.

Convenience: money orders are easy to get – just go to the customer service desk at a supermarket or visit a bank branch. But other forms of payment are much easier to work with. To get a money order, you often need to get cash, wait in line, wait for a customer service representative (who is doing their best) to complete the transaction, and get the money order into the mail. Personal checks and electronic payments eliminate most or all of those steps.

Trust: most people believe that money orders are safe. Sellers count on the issuer (instead of an individual) to deliver funds. However, money orders can raise red flags because they’re often used for fraud. In some cases, money orders are prohibited or they cause extra administrative work and delays. For example, some financial institutions (like insurance companies and brokerage firms) don’t accept money orders because they can be used in money laundering operations.