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The Anatomy of a Check

Aug 17, 2007
As you sit at your coffee table each month, writing check after to check to pay off various bills, do you ever stop to think why a check looks the way it does? What are all those numbers for? Why do I have to write out the amount in words? Why am I writing a check when I can have this amount automatically deducted from my account? That last question you'll have to answer yourself. But if you'd like to know a little bit more about checks and how they work, read on.

Here's a little guided tour of your personal check. Start at the upper left corner. There you'll possibly see a cute monogram or logo, something you selected to personalize your checks. Moving clockwise you'll see your name, address, and optional information including your phone number, driver's license number, or social security number. Scanning further to your right, above the "Date" line, you'll see a tiny set of numbers that should look something like "9-5678/1234". This fractional number identifies your banking institution. Next to that, in the upper right hand corner of the check, is a number four digit number. This is your check number, it's there to help you to keep track of all the checks your write.

Moving on, just below the check number is the dollars box, where you write the numeric amount of the check. To the left of that is the 'Pay to the order of' line, where you'll fill in the name of the lucky person or institution who will receive your hard-earned cash. Below that line you'll find the amount line, where you fill in the amount of your check in words. Directly below that is the name of your bank and possibly its address. To the right of the amount line, you'll probably notice a little padlock icon. This is a reference to security features built into the check to help your bank prevent or identify fraudulent activities. There are more details about these features in small print on the back of the check.

Directly below the amount line and padlock icon, you'll notice either a small blank area or a personal message of your choosing. This is called the 'over signature area'. Below that is a line where you sign your name, making your check official and allowing the payee to cash it. To the left of the signature line is a 'for' or 'memo' line, where you can write a brief explanation of what the funds are to be used for (e.g. May electric bill, September cable, etc).

Underneath the 'memo' line, you'll see a bunch of funny looking numbers. They look that way for a reason. The printing of those numbers is done by a process called magnetic ink character recognition (MICR). These important numbers are printed so they can be recognized by devices called reader/sorters that help expedite check processing. The first nine digits represent your bank's routing number. It always starts with 0, 1, 2 or 3. To the right of that, you'll find two more sets of MICR numbers, set in different orders depending on the check. One of the digit sets will be your checking account number, the other will be your check number (the same as the number in the top right corner of the check). Flip the check over, and you'll see a line for the payee to endorse the check and that verbiage about the safety features built into the check that we talked about earlier. If you hold the back of the check up at an angle, in the right light you might see a watermark - another built in security feature.

That's pretty much it! Now you know why a check looks the way it does. So the next time you're busy paying bills, you'll be more enlightened about that little piece of paper that is oh-so-good at draining your bank account. That counts for something, right?
About the Author
Joe Kenny writes for the Credit Card Guide, offering views on credit cards in the UK, visit them today for some great 0% balance transfer offers and start clearing credit card debt today.
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