I just paid my rent for June. And that involved doing something very antiquated: writing a check.
Who does that anymore? Checks remind me of the 1980s and grocery shopping with my mother. I always thought of checks as a relic, a vestige of the paper-based banking system, something that ought to be framed and archived to show our children one day.
I can probably count on one hand the number of checks I wrote in my entire 5.5 years living in the UK. My checkbook was relegated to a drawer and rarely dusted off. And when I say “my checkbook,” I mean my one checkbook, because that is all the bank issued me with my account. That was all that was necessary.
Here in the US, on the other hand, I find myself all-too frequently reaching for my checkbook. As an indication that checks are alive and well, when I recently opened a new bank account, I received an entire check box filled with with four checkbooks. And now I find myself steadily working my way through them. At the very least, I use one per month to pay my rent.
I think the persistence of checks in the US can be in large part explained by the fact that there is no free and easy way to make an electronic payment to another person. In the UK, no matter what bank you have an account with, if another person gives you two simple numbers – their account number and their bank sort code – you can transfer them money, completely for free, in a matter of minutes by logging onto your online banking. The money will post to their account in just a day or two.
In the UK, people use this all the time for everything; it’s not only used for paying rent to your landlord. Let’s say you go on a weekend trip with a group of friends, and one friend pays the car rental and gas; at the end of the weekend, you want to divide the costs. Well, just calculate how much that person is owed, and everyone makes a bank transfer to that person’s account to pay their portion; there’s no need for any cash or checks. Likewise, a friend of a friend recently carried my suitcase from London to DC; I will pay her back by remotely making an online bank transfer to her account.
This doesn’t seem to be an option in the US. Unless if you happen to have the same bank as the person you want to pay (in which case transfers are free), then you have to (a) pay a fee, usually at least $3, to make an online transfer to another account; (b) wait 3 days for it to go through (unless if you pay a premium to have it go faster), and – most annoyingly – (c) you have to enter a whole slew of information about the receiving account to get the recipient set up in your online banking system. And, while everyone in the UK knows their sort code and account number, nobody in the US seems to know their routing number.
All of this is a royal pain in the backside. So, instead, you just end up pulling out your quill pen and parchment paper…