For most people, running out of checks probably doesn't happen as often as it used to. The number of checks written fell by more than half between 2000 and 2012, according to a Federal Reserve study released last summer.
But when you finally do rip that last check out of the book, you may be hit with sticker shock. A box of checks ordered through a bank can cost $25 or more.
Fortunately, it's OK to search the Web for cheaper checks (and cooler designs) -- as long as you take some basic precautions.
Better deals on checks outside banks
A quick survey of online prices for standard blue checks finds that you can easily save big by ordering through a third-party printer, although, surprisingly, ordering from your bank may not be the most expensive option.
Buying checks from a third party pays
|Bank of America (provided by Harland Clarke)||120||$16.97||$0.0707|
|Checks in the Mail||125||$29.98||$0.1199|
|Bank of America (provided by Harland Clarke)||120||$24.53||$0.1022|
|Checks in the Mail||100||$35.98||$0.1799|
Prices retrieved online April 20, 2015
The cheapest provider we could find was Sam's Club. The Wal-Mart-owned buying club sells single checks for about 2 cents each, less than one-third the price you'll pay ordering them through Bank of America's check reordering service.
Of course, price isn't everything; you don't want to give your checking account information to a sketchy, fly-by-night site. If you've never heard of the site you're thinking of ordering checks from, it's a good idea to check up on them via a Better Business Bureau search before you give up any sensitive information.
Safe to shop around
If going outside your bank to get checks makes you nervous, keep in mind that banks typically don't print checks themselves anyway. They send your check order off to a third-party printer, such as Deluxe or Harland Clarke, so all you're really doing is cutting out a middleman.
One easy way to tell if you're ordering checks from a reputable company whose products meet basic security standards is to look for a little padlock icon on the right side of their checks under the "amount" box. If it's there, you know the check and the company itself have been vetted by the Check Payment Systems Association, or CPSA.
"The padlock icon is a way of letting people who are handling checks know that the checks that are in their possession have at least a minimum number of security features that would protect against alteration of a check and duplication of a check," says Steven Antolick, CPSA executive director.
You can find a list of all CPSA authorized printers on the organization's website.
Everything you need to make a check order
If you decide to take the plunge, everything you need to order new checks online can be found on one of your old checks (or a temporary check, if it's a new account).
- Your checking account number.
- Your bank's routing number, which you can also find on the bank's website.
- The check number on your last check, so you know which number your new checks should start with.
- In some states, the date you opened the account.
You'll probably also want to double-check your order before making it final. While printers typically verify your account details with the bank before printing, checks with the wrong account information on them aren't very useful.
Security the most important feature
If you're going to spend more than the bare minimum on a check, the best bang for your buck is probably additional check safety features, says Magnus Carlsson, manager for treasury and payments at the Association for Financial Professionals.
"Checks are the payment method with the most fraud," Carlsson says. "So anything you can do to have more security is a big thing."
Top-of-the-line security features such as additional hard-to-copy microprint, hologram foil, heat sensors or hard-to-duplicate watermarks can double the cost of checks, so they're not cheap.
But unlike businesses, which write thousands or even millions of checks a year, for consumers who write checks occasionally, the costs are probably manageable compared with the potential fallout from fraud, says Carlsson.
OK, they can look cool, too
Another benefit of going outside your bank for checks is you might find a larger selection of colors and styles. In fact, you can find checks online with almost any image or theme you can imagine, from fine art to college sports teams to cats doing yoga.
If you can't find a particular design, you can always make your own. Many check printers give customers the option to use their own designs or photographs as a background.
You may also find an opportunity to do a little good with your check order. Many charitable associations, including the ASPCA, the National Park Foundation and the National Breast Cancer Foundation, raise money by putting their names and logos on checks.
Expect to add $3 to $6 more to the cost of two boxes for fancier checks incorporating better designs.