Why these millennials still love their checkbooks



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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When people spend money these days, it's usually digital. You've got cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum and maybe one day, Facebook's Libra, not to mention credit cards and mobile payment services like Venmo and Apple Pay. Paper currency seems like it's becoming a thing of the past.

But for some people, the old-fashioned checkbook is still a key personal finance tool. It turns out I know a few of these people and no, they're not my parents. They're all in their 30s. Here's how they're keeping checkbooks alive in the digital age.

Why the check lives on

The average consumer uses a check to pay for something 5.6% of the time according to Federal Reserve data. That's less than debit cards (31.8%), credit or charge cards (32.2%), and cash (27.4%). But some people insist on getting paid by check, and sisters Erin and Bernadette Bracken are happy to oblige.

Both women, 36, and 31, respectively, see therapists that only accept checks. They pay for other health care expenses the same way. Checks are also a handy gift.

"Whenever I go to weddings or if I go to a Communion or baptism or something I write a check," Erin said.

How checks help with budgeting

Writing checks is one thing. But the Bracken sisters also use their check registers for budgeting. Bernadette uses her register, coupled with a Google spreadsheet, to track her recurring payments each month.

At the beginning of each month, she writes out checks for those payments and makes sure she has enough in her account to cover them.

"So I know I have XYZ expenses coming and anything additional to that I'll keep an eye on as the month goes," Bernadette said.

This system allows her to forecast future expenses. Bernadette tried more technologically advanced budgeting tools like Mint ("I got too many fucking emails from them. I don't need Mint harassing me that I went over my entertainment budget.") and You Need a Budget, but neither could replace the check register and spreadsheet system she's used since 2013.

Read our guide to the most popular budgeting apps.

Security concerns

Tim Lee, 30, works in the financial industry and makes films outside of work. He uses checks to pay people who work on his films and to pay his mortgage. The main reason he uses them and avoids mobile payment apps like Venmo is due to his concerns about cybersecurity.

"Tech companies are always leaking stuff," he said.

Lee has tracked his payments in check registers going back a decade, to the days when he would pay fraternity expenses using checks. He plans to continue using checks until cryptocurrencies can guarantee his anonymity and are actually accepted as a form of payment.

Checks vs. credit

None of these people are Luddites. They all use credit cards and smartphones. But there's another reason the Brackens prefer paper to plastic in some cases: merchant fees.

Erin is a small business owner, so she knows firsthand the expense of processing credit card payments. She and Bernadette prefer to write checks when dealing with small businesses.

"I'd rather give them all of the money they're owed instead of minus a percentage for credit card processing," Erin said.

Erin uses credit cards as well and pays them off each month, but feels she's more judicious when writing checks.

"It just feels like it's your real money that's actually coming out of your checking account," she said.

Custom checks also give them a chance to express their personalities. For example, Erin, who has a cat named Bill Purray, has "Bill Purray 4 Prez 2020" on all her checks.

Plus, Erin said, "You can write funny memos to people."

"Venmo thinks they invented the memo," Bernadette said.

"They didn't," Erin said. "The check did."

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Image: Nastia Kobzarenko