Why can’t Americans ditch checks?
The first time Amelia Howells ever wrote a check, she was 28 years old and standing in a Connecticut apartment leasing office, with no idea what to do.
The British expat had just moved to the U.S.; she’d never had to write a check in London or during seven years in Switzerland.
“I had to sit down with a woman to learn how to do it. She thought it was hilarious and called in all the other people in the office to have a laugh at me,” she recalls. “In Switzerland, they don’t even have checks. We did all our rent and utilities online, and that was back in the early 2000s.”
In an era of smartphones, online banking, and Venmo transfers, the U.S. still can’t seem to wean itself off paper checks. In most countries, they’ve gone the way of the rotary telephone. But their demise isn’t coming to America any time soon.
Americans still reach for their checkbooks more than anybody else. In 2015, they each made 38 check transactions, on average, according to data from the Bank of International Settlements, the coordinating body for the world’s central banks. Compare that with about 18 in Canada, just 8 in the U.K., and almost zero in Germany. The only country close to American numbers is France.
There are cheaper, faster, and more efficient alternatives. Electronic transactions clear quickly — no stamp needed — and cost their users about a 10th as much as checks to process. (A 2015 survey of businesses by the Association for Financial Professionals pegged the median cost of issuing a check at $3, compared with under 30 cents for a electronic transaction.) Using peer-to-peer payment apps to transfer money between checking accounts, however, doesn’t incur fees.
Checks have been in decline in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. And although electronic payments, debit cards, and credit cards are more popular these days, the rate of checks’ decline has slowed, according to a Federal Reserve payment study from last year.
In part, blame Americans’ comfort with them, and the fact they serve the underserved. Feedback from retailers suggests many older and rural Americans still use checks to pay for groceries and gas, says Tom Hunt, the director of treasury services for the Association for Financial Professionals. Particularly reliant on checks are the 33.5 million households that either don’t have bank accounts or supplement them with alternative financial services such as check-cashing and pawnshop loans. Far more of those households were paid by paper check, a 2015 survey by the FDIC found.
Banks are trying to push consumers toward cheaper, faster mobile banking and peer-to-peer services like Venmo and Paypal, but older Americans still aren’t totally sold. A 2015 Fed survey found just 18 percent of smartphone users age 60 and older had ever used mobile banking, up from 5 percent in 2011.
“Our customers wrote almost a billion checks last year. Checks will be around for a while,” said Michelle Moore, Bank of America’s head of digital banking. “But P2P is what really is growing phenomenally year-over-year.”
Old habits die especially hard in the business world, where more than half of business-to-business payments are still made by check, according to an AFP survey from last year. The survey found the number of B2B check payments has risen slightly since 2013. “There are better, faster, more convenient, less costly payment methodologies in place, but with those comes the technologyadoption hurdle that a lot of companies just can’t get over,” said Hunt.
Then there’s the highly fragmented American banking system — there are more than 10,000 depository institutions, making it a challenge to implement changes across them all — and The Fed doesn’t have the regulatory power to phase out checks.