In the era of PayPal, Venmo and Square, using personal checks may seem slow and cumbersome, like some kind of 18th century affectation. Writing a check for the cashier takes more time than it would to swipe a card and even longer if you need to present ID to verify your identity.
As debit cards and other instantaneous electronic payment options have multiplied, check usage has plunged. Between 2003 and 2012, check payments fell by more than 50%, according to the Federal Reserve. Yet there are still situations in which paper checks are useful.
For example, many landlords still insist on a check for the rent. And if your landlord's bookkeeping is a little sloppy, and there's a dispute over how much or when you paid, being able to produce images of your canceled checks from bank statements supplies proof. (Ask your bank how to get canceled check images with your account statement. Some banks charge a monthly fee to have check images included.) Similarly, check images provide evidence of tax payments or loan installments instead of having to track down receipts or email confirmations.
If you use checks with carbon copy duplicates, you can get details of past transactions with a quick flick back through your checkbook instead of having to comb through a pile of receipts or look online at your account, which may only have a year or two of transactions. Jotting down details in each check's memo field will also jog your memory later.
Checks also come in handy for purchases at small businesses that don't take credit cards. Baby sitters, house cleaners, lawn care workers and other people who don't have card-processing smartphones (or point-of-sale terminals, for that matter) can access funds by cashing or depositing checks at their bank.
If you write a check to pay a merchant or service provider and something goes wrong, stopping payment on that check is as simple as phoning your bank and paying a fee (around $30 for the big national banks). On the other hand, credit cards typically have strong return and fraud protection features that checks lack.
To be sure, using checks involves some risks. Some are within your control. If you're careful to keep your checkbook secure at all times, that'll minimize the chance of thieves stealing and forging your checks.
At the same time, the fast-paced 21st century payment methods have their own set of risks. Massive database breaches at popular retailers like Target and Home Depot snagged stored credit card data and exposed tens of millions of customers to identity theft. After episodes like those, it's easier to see the appeal of the low-tech check. However, the potential downsides of using paper checks can outweigh the benefits, so think twice before you write a check to an individual or business that you don't know. Those numbers at the bottom of the check are all a crook needs to siphon your account.