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The check is often not in the mail — or even in the wallet

Connie Prater

How often do you write checks these days?

A growing number of people have given up check writing as electronic, plastic and online payment methods have expanded. That’s why I’m a bit puzzled by a new campaign called: “Stand up for your right to write checks.”

A press release about the campaign quotes the results of a telephone poll of 1,005 adults conducted July 17-21, 2010. More than a third of respondents (38 percent) said they would consider walking out of or not returning to a restaurant or business that refused to accept checks for payment. Three out of four people (75 percent) said they should have the freedom to pay at stores or restaurants with whatever method they choose — check, credit card, debit card or cash.

The poll was conducted by Deluxe Corp., a company that sells personalized checks and accessories to consumers. Hmm. They have a lot vested in convincing people that checks are still the way to go in the marketplace. I’m guessing their business has taken a hit as people have switched to plastic and online payment methods. Ah, now I see. The whole “right to write” campaign is just a marketing ploy to boost sales.

Checking out
As this Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia discussion paper from May 2010 notes, check writing is continuing a steady decline that started nearly two decades ago. Between 2000 and 2008, check use declined from 84 percent to 69 percent among panelists surveyed in an annual Visa study of payment methods. The Fed’s own payments study — published every three years — shows check use declined by 4.1 percent between 2003 and 2006, the latest figures available.

Among non-cash payments in 2006, debit cards were the No. 1 plastic payment method, followed by credit cards. (Note: This sentence was revised from its original version to reflect that debit cards outranked credit cards among plastic payment options. Checks are No. 1 in overall non-cash payments.) The new Fed study is due in December 2010 and will likely show a further slide away from checks.

There’s another factor affecting the demise of paper checks. How often have you gone into an establishment and seen “We don’t take personal checks” signs? The more businesses that refuse checks, the more consumers are driven to electronic payment methods.

The Visa study highlighted some interesting demographic data on who still uses checks:
“Check writers tend to be older. Many payment industry observers anticipate that consumer check use will continue to decline as generations who developed check-writing habits and continue to prefer that payment method are succeeded by younger generations for whom cards have always been available as a means to access funds on deposit and who have formed their payment habits accordingly.”

I know that for people who are not Web savvy or don’t trust online banking, paper checks are still very much the norm. My parents are an example. They continue to write checks each month to pay their credit card, utility and housing bills.

Our informal poll
We did a very informal poll here at of our newsroom’s use of checks. Here’s what my co-workers and I had to say:

Multimedia assistant Anna Bleker:
“Checks are for roommates and landlords. I actually didn’t have a checkbook for two years because I ran out of checks, and I never needed it. OK, I had to get money orders a few times, like a lazy college sloth/creeper that gives money orders.”

Insurance Managing Editor John Egan:
“I write checks from time to time, but rather infrequently. In fact, sometimes I misplace my checkbook.”

Editor-in-chief Dan Ray:
“I keep a few [checks] around for the lawn guy — yes, believe it or not, despite my lawn of rocks, I have one who I call every couple months to whack weeds and in the fall clean up leaves. Other than that, I haven’t written one in eons.”

Managing Editor Julie Sherrier:
“I still write checks, too, especially for school stuff, pedicures and doctor’s visits. And my property tax bill. I just like having a paper record for some things.”

Insurance Managing Editor John Egan:
“Julie, you want to keep a paper record of your pedicures?”

Reporter Jeremy M. Simon:
“I used to write checks for my rent and utility payments. That was before I entered the wonderful world of online banking. ”

Senior Writer Connie Prater:
“I have a child in school. It seems the schools are still in the dark ages in some respects. I write checks for everything from choir dues to field trip deposits to school newspaper subscriptions. The school fundraisers accept cash or a check, but it’s easier to just write them a check for the total amount sold. I also write checks when I send money to relatives in birthday, graduation or Christmas cards. And when I had an apartment, I wrote checks every month for the rent and the water bill. In Miami, I wrote checks for the exterminator guy and the lawn man. When I redid my roof after a hailstorm, I wrote a check to the contractor. Same thing with the plumber who came to the house last month.”

Managing Editor Matt Schulz:
“I second a lot of Connie’s points. Preschool doesn’t take plastic. Handymen don’t take plastic. Also, though ours might take plastic, [his wife] writes checks when we give to our church.

“I’m also the guy who sighs and rolls his eyes when someone writes a check at the grocery store. Definite pet peeve of mine.”

Insurance Managing Editor John Egan:
“Same here, Matt. It seems to take forever for people to write checks at [grocery stores].”

Checks anyone?
What about you? Have checks become obsolete in your wallet? Do you ever have to write them anymore? And if so, for what?

UPDATE: The 2010 Federal Reserve payments study was released Dec. 8, 2010. It shows debit cards surpassed paper checks as the No. 1 noncash payment method between 2006 and 2009. Checks continued a steady decline.

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  • “Hmm. They have a lot vested in convincing people that checks are still the way to go in the marketplace.”
    Hmmmm! I wonder if has any vested interest in convincing people checks are going out so they keep using credit cards and going into debt?
    ALSO – the Fed Study you referred to shows Checks made up 33% of all non-cash payments Debit cards made up 27% and Credit made up 24%.
    That sure doesn’t look like debit cards are the “No.1 payment method.” Credit will have to settle for the bronze.
    Were you confused or did you just decide to lie?

  • Well, go back and read the entire sentence: “Among non-cash payments in 2006, debit cards were the No. 1 payment method, followed by credit cards.”
    The Fed study shows that debit cards beat out credit cards in “non-cash payments.” The new study will likely show a further drift away from checks.
    And I don’t have to convince anyone about the demise of checks. I think the facts about consumer preference speak for themselves.

  • KaseyS

    Sorry Connie – but I still think you ARE confused.
    What makes checks cash? Because you are using the funds available to you? You are also doing that with a debit card.
    The Fed’s Study WAS on ALL non-cash payments. That INCLUDES checks as well as ACH and EBT. Meaning they are not ACTUAL cash.
    If you read the PDF you’ll see all the charts are labeled NON-CASH Payments – checks are included – and checks are No. 1.

  • I stand corrected: Among non-cash payments in 2006, debit cards were the No. 1 plastic payment method, followed by credit cards. I quote from the study: “While the use of all other major payment instruments increased, the number of checks paid decreased 6.4 percent per year. The number of checks written also continued to decrease, albeit at a somewhat slower pace (4.1 percent) than checks paid.”

  • Bob

    I only use cash or checks. I don’t own, have no desire to own, and never will own either a credit card or a debit card.
    I certainly have no problem with Deluxe doing a marketing campaign to promote the use of checks. It’s no different than those horrid VISA check card TV ads—the ones that suggest everything runs smoothly until some schmoe decides to pay with cash or a check. Then watch everything come to a screeching halt.
    I find cash and checks to be far safer forms of payment than plastic or electronic means. Quicker, too.
    I count myself among the 38% who would consider taking their business elsewhere if a store refused to accept a check. But I also take that a step further.
    If Deluxe (or any other check printer) really wants to promote check use, they should turn up the heat on stores that take checks, but only if they can electronically convert them at the cash register. This process essentially makes the check a paper debit card, ending the paper trail that makes using a check for payment so attractive.
    Such changes in policy in stores like Meijer, Sears, Kmart, and Walmart mean that I don’t buy much of anything there anymore, as I’m forced into cash-only transactions, and I refuse to carry a lot of cash around with me. Businesses sure seem to like to cut their own throats with policies like these! They don’t get any sympathy from me when they cry about being overly-regulated. If anything, they need more regulation, not less.
    As to the staff comments in the story, I’d add just a couple of thoughts. While I’ve never had a pedicure, I definitely keep a paper record on just about everything. And far from sighing and rolling my eyes, I always have a smile on my face when the person ahead of me at a check-out line writes a check, rather than using plastic. We check-writers tend to stick together, you know. It’s kind of funny how so many people tend not to know the meaning of the word “patience.”
    It still is a virtue.

  • KaseyS

    (It’s kind of funny how so many people tend not to know the meaning of the word “patience.”)
    I agree Bob.
    But what about this?
    How many times have you been in line behind someone who couldn’t figure out which way to swipe their plastic card through the machine?
    Or maybe it’s an old worn out card and they have to wrap it up in a plastic bag and then swipe it. But only after they rub it on their pants for awhile first to generate some static electricity.
    Or maybe they can’t figure out which button to hit if they want to run their debit card as credit. “Is it Enter or Cancel? Oh shoot I hit Cancel! Do I need to swipe it again?”
    Or maybe they want to use a pin number – but they can’t remember it – so they dig through their purse looking for it.
    Just the other day I was at an Arby’s (where they don’t accept checks by the way). The “system was running slow” that day. And the three people in front of me took about 5 minutes each just for their cards to go through.
    I guess what I’m saying is — it goes both ways.

  • Bob

    In all honesty, KaseyS, if I had a plastic card, I’d resemble your remarks and be that “lost soul” trying to figure out what to do with it. Another reason why I like cash and checks. Simple and easy to use. No machine gizmos, buttons, and pin numbers to muck it all up.

  • Many people have personal preferences for how they make payments: using plastic debit or credit cards, checks or cash. It depends on what you’ve grown accustomed to.

  • Phillip null James

    Thank you Bob, for echoing what I try to put into practice everyday!!! Yes, I am one of those people who writes checks for everything. I pay all my bills by check. Almost every transaction I make, at stores, involves a check. (Yes, I am that guy in front of you!!)
    I don’t have a debit card and refuse to get one, And , it’s not just because I can’t figure them out. It’s about the freedom we have to not be forced into a certain way of spending our OWN money!! Who decided that using credit/debit was what we needed?
    I will always use my checkbook. And when they wont accept my check, I guess they won’t get paid. It’s time for people to stand up to the businesses and say, “If you want my money,you will accept it in any form I give it!!”
    Plus, it gives me great pleasure to know that they have to wait 9 days for my check to clear and get paid!! Hey,why should they get to my money before I do?

  • Debit cards became the No.1 noncash payment method between 2006 and 2009 — surpassing paper checks and credit cards, according to the latest Fed payments study released Dec. 8, 2010. Here’s the link to the article: