The Checkbook’s Comeback?

Forget using your cell phone to pay, the old paper-and-pen method is good enough for me

My college-senior daughter is always happy when I take her shopping, right up until that instant when we reach the cash register and I reach into my handbag for my checkbook. That’s when she starts to squirm and get embarrassed and make apologies for me to the cashier: “I’ve tried to get her to get a debit card,” she’ll say, shrugging helplessly. Yes, I am an endangered species: I don’t have any debit cards. I have a credit card and my checkbook, and they’ve gotten me this far in life. What’s more, I have an end-stub checkbook, something so antiquated that the kids at the supermarket sometimes crane and stare when I pull it out: “Never saw one of those before!”[SIGNUP]

What can I say? It’s what I’m used to. I like the on-the-spot accounting it offers me, and the neat little flip-book history I end up with after every 30 checks: mortgage/groceries/gas bill/tax bill/car loan/life insurance/groceries again! When I need cash, I take a check to the bank. This is as foreign to my daughter as wearing a burqa. “Why not use an ATM?” she wonders, often and aloud. “It’s so much more convenient!” What she doesn’t understand is that I don’t want getting money to be more convenient. I want it to be less convenient, on the theory that I’ll then spend less. When I use a check, I have to write down how much money I want to withdraw — have to write it twice, in fact, once in numerals and then in longhand. That gives me time to ponder: Do I really need a hundred and fifty bucks, or will a hundred do?

I’ve long suspected this happy state of affairs would eventually end, and my bank would make me get a debit card and take away my checks. It penalizes me for being so backward; I have to pay now ($2 a month!) to get photocopies of the checks I’ve written, where I used to get back the checks themselves. My bank would very much like for me to do my dealings online, ostensibly to save trees but actually because it’s easier for my bank. That’s the way it goes these days: “Service” industries all seem to want you to serve them. Have you had to file an insurance claim lately? And don’t even get me started on those Móbius-strip phone menus that make me pull out my hair.

Meantime, my colleague Christine Speer has this piece in the magazine this month about some bright young things who’ve come up with a way to use your cell phone to pay your bills. I can barely use my cell phone to make a phone call.

But I heard a piece on NPR recently about a push by check-printing companies to get young folk to take up the pen rather than the card. No wonder; half as many checks were written in 2010 as in 2000. And my checks are expensive — $35 for a box of 300. According to NPR, changes in banking overdraft rules are going to result in more humiliating “card declined” episodes for my kid and her ilk. It seems to me her generation is pretty immune to shame — have you ever watched Jersey Shore? — but maybe I’m wrong. And hey, look what’s making a comeback: the apron, of all things. Can the checkbook be far behind?