Between online bill pay and money-transferring apps like Venmo, many of us don’t fill out checks very often. On the occasion that we do need to write one, like to pay rent, take care of a bill, or send a birthday gift to a relative, we might find ourselves feeling uncertain about whether we’re doing it right.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about how to fill out a check. To start, let’s get up close and personal with this small but mighty piece of paper.
Anatomy of a Check: Full Diagram
Did you know that a check has your bank account number on it? Or that each check has its own number that shows up not once, but twice? Did you ever notice that official checks have a tiny image of a padlock to show they’re certified by the almighty Check Payment Systems Association?
Check out this diagram of a personal check to take a close look at everything on it. This particular check belongs to Archibald Squiggles of Splitsville, Indiana.
As you can see, your checks will show your name and address, bank account and routing number, and a check number. They also may feature the name of your bank. Using this diagram for reference, let’s look at everything you need to do to fill out a check.
How to Fill Out a Check
First off, you should fill out your check in pen. You could use a pencil, technically, but then your writing could get smudged or, worse, an unsavory character could come along, erase what you wrote, and change it to something else! Pen is more secure and official, especially when a signature is required.
When you’re writing a check, you just need a few pieces of information:
- Name of the recipient, whether it’s an individual or a company
- Amount of money you’re writing the check for
- The date you want the recipient to cash the check
You’ll also need to know how to write out the amount of money in words, a task that most of us rarely do outside of the context of writing checks. You’ll find some more tips on how to do this below.
Once you have all of this information, you’ll find that writing the check is easy. There are five required pieces of information, plus an optional sixth.
You can add these five (or six) pieces of information in any order, as long as you fill them all out in the end. For the purposes of this guide, the steps for how to write a check are presented in the order that they appear on the check from top to bottom and left to right, starting with the date.
Step 1: Write the Date
First, you should write the date on its designated line near the top right corner. Put the date on which the recipient can first cash the check. That might be the current date, or a date in the future.
For instance, if you’re writing a check for December, 2016 rent, then you might put the date as December 1, 2016. This means that you want the recipient to cash the check on or after December 1, but not before.
You can write the date in long form or in the format MM/DD/YYYY. For instance, using the example above, you could write July 1, 2016 or 07/01/2016 (leaving out the zeros and writing 7/1/2016 is fine, too). If you’re writing a longer month, like November, you can also abbreviate it, e.g. Nov. 1, 2016.
In the example below, Loretta Checkworth has started writing a check to pay back Archibald Squiggles. She’s writing the check in late September, but dates it as October 1, 2016. Since she and Archibald Squiggles are close friends, he doesn’t mind waiting a week to cash it until Loretta’s sure she has the funds in her account.
You’ll notice that Loretta has redacted her home address and bank account number. She knows better than to share personal information with strangers on the internet.
Like Loretta, you can date a check in the future if you want the recipient to wait to cash it. If you have insufficient funds in your account until that date, you should also pass the message along to the recipient to wait to deposit the check until the stated date.
Step 2: Name the Recipient
After you write the date, fill in the name of the recipient. If you’re writing a check to a person, then write his/her first and last name. Loretta writes out Archibald’s full name, as you can see on the check below.
If you’re sending money to a company, write the full name of the company (e.g., Acropolis Realty, Inc.).
You can also write “cash” as the recipient. Writing cash means that anyone can cash the check. It’s usually not recommended, for security reasons.
Step 3: Fill in the Numerical Amount of Money
In the payment box, write out the amount of money. Since the dollar sign should already be outside the box, you don’t need to repeat it. Just write the numbers.
Include the cents, even if the amount of cents is zero. For instance, five dollars should be written as 5.00, rather than just 5.
It is possible to write a check for less than a dollar. In that case, include the zero before the decimal point. An amount of 75 cents, for instance, would be written as 0.75.
Loretta owes $150.99 to Archibald, which she indicates in the payment box below.
Since the dollar sign is already outside the box, Loretta doesn’t write it again when writing a check. Just the numbers, “150.99” are fine.
Step 4: Write Out the Amount of Money in Words
Now comes the slightly less usual task. In addition to writing the numerical amount of money, you also need to write out the amount in words.
You’ll write out the dollars in words and the cents in words or as a fraction out of 100. For instance, an amount of $5.00 could be written as “Five dollars and zero cents” or “Five dollars and 00/100.” Writing the cents as a fraction is more common because it saves room on a relatively short line.
When there’s no change, you can also follow the amount in dollars with the word “even.” In this example, your third option would be to write, “Five dollars even.”
If you’re writing a compound number between 20 and 100, you should include a hyphen. For example, $21 becomes “Twenty-one dollars” and $49 becomes “Forty-nine dollars.”
If you’re writing an amount less than a dollar, then you could write out the cents in one of two ways. You could write “zero dollars and” followed by the fraction, or write the amount out in words preceded by the word “only.” For example, 50 cents would become “zero dollars and 50/100” or “Only fifty cents.”
Using these rules, let’s look at a few more examples of how to write out numerical amounts of money in words.
- Example 1: $10.00 > Ten dollars and 00/100 OR Ten dollars and zero cents OR Ten dollars even
- Example 2: $39.99 > Thirty-nine dollars and 99/100 OR Thirty-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents
- Example 3: $0.75 > Zero dollars and 75/100 OR Only seventy-five cents
- Example 4: $1,789.74 > One thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine dollars and 74/100
As you can see, the fourth example only writes the cents as a fraction. While you technically can write out the change in words, you probably wouldn’t have space on the line with such a large number. You could also add clarifying commas when writing out big numbers, although you don’t have to.
If you’re running into trouble writing out the numerical value in words, you can also enlist the help of a website, like Calculator Soup. It converts numerical currency values into words.
It’s best to make sure you know how to write everything out before you start filling out the check, so you don’t waste a check. Before filling out your check, you can use another piece of paper for some check writing practice. You also want to make sure to write small enough so you can fit the amount all on one line.
Loretta is used to writing checks, so she went ahead and wrote “One hundred fifty dollars and 99/100s” on her personal check in the correct check writing format without a practice run first.
Loretta also added a dash after the amount to indicate that nothing should come after. You can include a line like this to safeguard your check and make sure no one can add any additional numbers.
Step 5: Add an Optional Memo
See the memo line near the bottom left-hand corner on the diagram of the check? Filling out this line is optional. You can write a word or two as a note to the recipient or to describe what the check is for. For instance, you could write “July rent,” “Happy Birthday,” “IOU,” or “Laser tag.”
If your recipient is getting several checks from you or other people, then it may be useful to fill out this memo line to make sure your check doesn’t get mixed up.
Step 6: Sign It!
Finally, once you’ve filled out the date, recipient, amount of money in numbers and words, and optional memo, you’ll sign your name!
A signature is essential, as the check can’t be cashed or deposited if it’s not signed. Once you’ve completed these six steps, you’re all done! Your check is filled out and ready to go.
After filling out all of the other essential information, Loretta signed her full name. Now the check is ready for Archibald.
Besides knowing how to write a check, there’s one other step you should take before sending off your check. Read on for one extra tip about check writing.
Extra Tip: Write Down the Check Number
Before sending off your check to your friend, landlord, laser tag partner, health insurance company, or whoever the recipient may be, you should take one additional step: write down the check number.
Every check has its own number to help you keep track of it. As you can see on Archibald’s check, the check number can typically be found twice on the check, on the top right and bottom right corners.
Recording the check number helps you keep track of which check you’re using in case it gets lost or you need to cancel it. Canceling a check costs between $15 and $36 depending on your bank, but it could be worth it if you’re worried about the check falling into the wrong hands.
You may also want to cancel the check if you don’t have enough money in your account, depending on your bank’s overdraft fees. Usually, banks charge an overdraft fee between $20 and $40 if a check bounces. If you have overdraft protection, then your bank will cover the cost of the check, but this coverage will be a loan with interest, plus you may have to pay an additional fee.
You’ll have to compare your bank’s overdraft fee with its cancellation fee to decide if the check is worth canceling. If you’re worried about a check bouncing, try to tell the recipient to wait to deposit until you’re sure you have enough money in your account.
Writing down the check number is a smart move just in case you need to cancel your check or order new ones. When you order from a third party, like Costco, you need to know the number of your last check so your next group of checks can start with the following number.
Loretta Checkworth, of course, recorded her check number before she paid back Archibald Squiggles for their laser tag weekend getaway. Archibald recently deposited Loretta’s check into his bank account, so there’s no longer a debt between them.
While Loretta’s an old pro when it comes to check writing, what should you remember as you fill out your own personal checks?
How to Write a Check: Key Takeaways
Filling out a check is no great mystery. You just need a small amount of information, namely the name of the recipient, the amount of money, and the date on which they can cash or deposit the check.
If you’re unsure about writing numerical values out in words, perhaps practice on another piece of paper first, so you don’t end up wasting a check. Before sending out your check, record the check number, just in case you need to cancel it.
Knowing how to fill out a check a useful skill that anyone with a checking account should have. Next time you need to send a check for rent, a bill, or a gift, you can feel confident that your money transfer will go through.