A friend recently told us that she and her husband no longer balance their checkbooks. “We just take what the bank tells us,” she said.

Karen and I haven’t quite reached this state of financial nirvana. Karen studied accounting in college and I have a copyeditor’s stickiness about detail. So we try to balance the books on our two major accounts, at two separate banks, faithfully each month. It doesn’t always work out perfectly. A cold laid Karen low, and she was about two weeks late this month balancing the more complicated account. However, I’d been using the bank’s on-line service to check my own arithmetic, and could tell in some fashion that we were basically on track. (There are three kinds of journalists, runs a wisecrack: those who can do math and those who can’t.)

Over the past several years, though, we’ve realized (as all users of paper checks must) that we are dinosaurs. The world is going (has gone) electronic, and checkbooks are doomed. Our banks have not returned our cancelled checks for several years, although in extremis we could still get printouts of an electronic version. On-line buying, of course, is totally electronic.

More interesting, we have become aware of how many local vendors convert the paper checks we hand them into electronic impulses of some sort. This came home to us forcefully two years ago when a national department store chain cashed one of our checks twice. We spotted the duplication on our bank statement and complained. At that point, we were blacklisted by the chain’s check-handling service, and could no longer use checks at any store employing that service. It took a lot of grief and letter-writing to clear it all up. We quit buying at that chain, and were only mildly pleased last week to learn it is going bankrupt.

Most stores don’t present a problem. Two that we use frequently run our paper checks through a scanner and then return the checks to us, stamped with a notice that they have been electronically processed. I save those checks. Our large chain grocer processes our purchases electronically, but doesn’t return the checks. A department store where we occasionally shop goes the electronic route, but apparently keys in the check number manually. A recent check was misnumbered on our monthly bank statement. This caused no problem, but we haven’t been back to that store since.

Our bank statements usually show clearly the check number and what entity is cashing it. But within the last several months, our local insurance agent has gone the electronic route. This past week I took two checks in to the firm’s secretary (call her Betty), and she let me watch as she ran the checks through a machine and typed in the check numbers manually. She asked if I wanted the paper checks back or if she should shred them. I took back the checks, which were not stamped in any way. She also give me a printed receipt for each. I said I’d be interested to see how the checks were designated on my bank statement, and Betty said she would be, too.

It took several days (including a weekend) for the checks to clear. They were then designated as “telephone initiated” with the name of the national insurer (not the local agent to whom they were written), and with a premium number but not my check number. (I know the number, of course, because I have the original checks.) When Betty gets back from vacation, I’ll tell her what happened on my end.

I asked my local banker some time back why different businesses are allowed to handle my checks in different ways. He replied, essentially, that the bank doesn’t care what in-house procedures the businesses use, so long as the bank gets a legitimate request, electronic or otherwise, for payment from my account. Most small local businesses (and some larger ones) to whom we write checks still submit the paper to the bank, which makes an electronic conversion and shreds the check. But the day is coming, probably soon, when the paper check will be as dead as the dodo.

Karen and I may be beyond checkbook balancing by then, however.

Many, many years ago, in a different town, my monthly bank statement arrived one day showing a balance of $10,200. The $200 looked right, but not the $10,000. “If errors are not reported within 10 days,” the statement said, “the amounts will be considered correct.” So I waited 10 days, went to the bank, and asked if the $10,000 was now mine to spend? The flustered cashier disappeared into a back room. She returned shortly and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Bridges. But that error has already been corrected.”

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