Banking Basics: How to Write a Check in 6 Easy Steps
Writing checks has become a lost art. Many people under 30 — or even 40 — may not even have checks.
We live in a world where we can pay with a debit or credit card for just about everything — and in some cases, swipe a phone over a payment terminal to access our cash before whooshing out the door.
Sitting down every month with a checkbook to write out paper checks to pay bills is nearly a thing of the past with automatic bill pay.
But having some checks on hand is a good idea, especially when a new employer asks for a voided check for direct deposit information.
How to Fill out a Check: Our Step-by-Step Guide
Writing a check is easy if you know these steps. This is just one more personal finance skill that’s good to have.
Step 1. Write the Date in the Upper Right Corner
On the date line, note the month, current date and year in the top right corner. This should be the date you’re writing the check.
If you want the recipient to wait until you have money in your checking account before depositing the check, you might postdate the check.
You might postdate a check if you’re paying ahead of time for a service. For example, if your rent is due on the first of the month, but you mail your check on the 15th of the previous month because you’re going on vacation, you would postdate the check for the first of the next month.
Step 2. ‘Pay to the Order of’ Means the Person or Business You’re Paying
Write the name of the person, company or payee in the field labeled “Pay to the Order of.”
If you’re not sure of the correct title, organization or business name, make sure to ask before writing out the check to ensure they can deposit it. Never leave this line blank when you write a check — you risk someone taking the liberty of finishing writing that check out to themselves!
If you are writing a check at a doctor’s office, they have a stamp and will fill this part of the check in for you. You can watch them do it to ensure it is made out to the right person or business.
Step 3. Write the Dollar Amount You’re Paying Out of Your Checking Account
Write the cash amount in words on the line directly below the payee name (including dollars and cents). You might write “twenty-five dollars and twenty-five cents” or “twenty-five dollars and 25/100” — either is fine as long as it’s clear how much you’re paying.
If your words don’t take up the whole space, draw a straight line through to the end of the field so no one else can edit what you wrote.
You’re doing this in pen, right? Pencil is too easy to alter. We used to be advised to write checks in cursive, but now, writing in pen is enough to indicate legitimacy.
Step 4: Write the Same Amount in the Box on the Right Side of the Check
Now write the numerical dollar amount of the check in the box next to the dollar sign. Noting the amount in two ways gives the person cashing it a safeguard to ensure it’s correct.
Be sure to fill the whole box so the amount can’t be altered. It’s more important to align your dollar amount all the way to the left side of the box so no one can change your $25.25 to $125.25, for example.
Step 5: Write a Memo If You Want To
The lower left line of the check, labeled “Memo,” is for your reference and the recipient’s. It’s a way to record exactly what the money’s for.
For example, you might make a note that you purchased “Mom’s birthday gift.” This is especially helpful if you write a lot of checks in a day and have a checkbook that makes carbon copies.
More likely, if you’re using checks to pay bills, the recipient might ask you to include identifying information like a billing account number.
Step 6: Sign the Bottom Right Hand Corner of the Check
Here is where you need to sign your name. Your recipient can’t deposit the funds unless you’ve signed the completed check!
P.S. Make sure you’re keeping track of the times you make payments via check in your checkbook’s ledger, a paper register that comes with the checkbook. This is an old-school task for sure. Many people who mix online expenditures through their debit cards, automatic bill pay and classic check writing keep up with transactions through the online account at their financial institution.
Keeping track of the available balance in your checking account can help avoid any accidental overdraft fees from banks or financial institutions. If you want to avoid overdraft fees, you might consider banking online with Ally, which eliminated all overdraft fees for checking and savings accounts.
Here Are the Parts of a Check
What are all these lines, boxes and numbers? How many ways do I have to write the dollar amount? Stop guessing. We’ll tell you!
- Your info: This includes your full name, address and sometimes your phone number. If this isn’t printed on the check, many vendors ask you for it at checkout, so having it printed there saves you time.
- Check number: This is to help you keep track of the checks you write so you can check them against your monthly bank statement; the vendor doesn’t use it.
- Date line: This records when you wrote the check.
- Recipient line: For the person or business you write the check to.
- Payment amount box: To include the numerical amount of the check for additional clarity.
- Payment amount line: To spell out the amount of the check.
- Your bank information: Including the name and address of the financial institution.
- Memo line: To explain what the check is for, for your and the recipient’s reference.
- Signature line: For you to sign to verify you’re authorizing the check.
- Your bank’s routing number: This helps the computers know which institution holds your money.
- Your checking account number: This helps the computers know which account to pull the money from.
Yes, Paper Checks Are Old School
We don’t exactly expect a resurgence of check writing. Still, chances are good that the time will eventually come when you’ll need to write a check. Maybe you’re all about online banking but you’ve got an older relative who only knows how to deal with paper checks or a landlord who just insists on getting the rent payment with the dollar amount written exactly right.
Maybe it will just be a monthly rent check. Maybe it will be a down payment for something exciting, like a car or a house. Maybe you’ll be feeling benevolent and want to write up some snazzy-looking birthday gifts. Maybe you shop at a small business in a small town and realize you don’t have enough cash to cover your purchase.
So we would still advise you to learn the easy and important skill of how to write a check. Many people don’t learn how until college, so don’t feel bad if you’re reading this while shielding your computer screen from passersby.
Need some physical checks? Read our how to order checks guide to help get a new checkbook without excessive fees.
Security Tips for Writing a Check
Checks are legal tender from a financial institution that anyone can use to make a purchase or receive cash. Treat them like a legal document, and fill out each line carefully to ensure they can’t be used if they get into the wrong hands.
Include Your Information on the Check
When you order checks, have your name, address and telephone number printed on the check. Vendors and banks tend to ask for ID when taking checks, so this helps protect you from identity theft should someone get hold of your blank checkbook.
Double-Check All the Information
The simplest and best way to ensure your check is cashed for the correct amount by the intended recipient is to fill out all the information correctly.
Double-check after you’ve written the check that everything is correct:
- Include the correct payee name for the person receiving the money.
- Include the exact amount of the check, and make sure the written amount is the same as the numerical amount.
- Draw a line to fill any empty space along the payment amount line, and fill the payment amount box.
Keep a Good Record
Immediately document the check amount, date and payee in your check register, so you can track it and make sure it’s cashed for the correct amount.
Don’t Write a Postdated Check
In many cases, you have the option to postdate your check to encourage the recipient to wait to cash it until you have the money in your account. However, this isn’t foolproof.
In some states, businesses aren’t technically allowed to accept postdated checks, and in almost all cases, banks aren’t required to honor the future date for cashing. You might think you’re writing a check that won’t be cashed until after payday, but the bank could legally pull money out of your account before you planned — potentially risking overdraft fees or a rejected payment.
How to Write a Check From an Online Bank Account
Even though we’re all writing fewer checks than ever, knowing how to write a check is still important. Debit cards and online banking have all but eliminated the need for this tedious payment process.
If you have to make a payment with a check — for something like rent or an odd bill — and all you have is an online bank account that doesn’t issue checkbooks, you usually still have the ability to write checks.
Ask your bank about one of these options:
1. Order Checks From a Third Party
Tons of online businesses, and even Costco and Walmart, print checks with your personal information and bank routing and account numbers. You can get 125 checks from Carousel Checks for about $14. Checks for Less can get them to you overnight. Even if you don’t plan to write checks regularly, the paper versions could come in handy.
Check the FAQs for your online bank checking account to make sure your account information works for these services. Some don’t, and they should say that explicitly.
2. Schedule a Check to Be Sent
Even if you can’t order checks for yourself with your bank account, nearly every checking account in existence lets you schedule checks just like you make digital payments.
Log into your account through the bank’s app or website, and search for a section on “bill pay” or “mail a check.” This will give you the option to fill out the payee and amount, and schedule a date for the check to be sent. The bank will print the check with the information filled out and mail it to the payee for you.
Senior writer Michael Archambault contributed.
Contributor Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® who has written about work and money for publications including Forbes, The New York Times, CNBC, Insider, NextAdvisor and Inc. Magazine. Lisa Rowan a former staff writer.