Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why I Still Write Checks, Or How I Learned to Love People

To write checks, or not to write checks...that is the question!
A large group of my friends and some new acquaintances gathered recently to chat about upcoming projects while having good food and wine.  When the bill came, some people forked over cash but the majority pulled out debit cards and a conversation about how we represent money came up.  One person, who I do not know very well, went on an angry tirade about people who still use checks.  "If you are still using checks, first of all, WHY?" he said sarcastically.  His sentiments are echoed by many.  His words were funny, but I kept my mouth shut about what I really felt.  I certainly understand the desire to eschew checks when one is paying for groceries (it holds up the line) or at a restaurant (too inconvenient), but I had much to say about why I still use checks.  I doubted he would understand my reasoning, so I stayed silent.  It ultimately comes down to loving people and wanting them to be able to eat, as far as I'm concerned.  Let me explain.

1. If one stops using checks altogether, that implies that one has to automate everything.  That is the most dangerous thing I can possibly think of.  I absolutely do not want to give any entity the option of going into my account and taking whatever it thinks I owe it.  This kind of behavior amounts to having a safe in your house that you've given countless strangers the combination to.  If an organization makes an error and decides that you owe it everything that is in your account, it has the authority to empty your coffers.  Indeed, when Vincent and I moved back to New York from Texas, a very unethical man at the truck rental in New York took all our money out of our account because he was convinced we did not return a car trailer that we never used for the trip.  Car and truck rental agreements have a clause that allows the company to take out whatever they see fit from your account, if you use a debit card, or to charge you whatever they want to your credit card.  The rental amount is "open."  Similarly, automatic payments to other companies have the same clause that allows them to go into your account.  Obviously, it is bad business to abuse this power, but why put yourself at risk if you can avoid it?  The "convenience" of automatic bill payment is a myth for some of us.  There is nothing convenient about it for me.  This site and this one have several arguments against going paperless for bill payment.  The conversation here explains that countries in Europe that decided to go entirely paperless have had larger numbers of fraud as a result, too.

2. Said fraud and errors are harder to commit if people are involved.  Furthermore, for just a few cents per check, stamp, and envelope, I can voice my desire to keep jobs.  There are lots of people involved in the processing of bill payments: people who make stamps, people who make envelopes, people who process and deliver mail, people who deliver the checks I order, people who open up the bills I send to various organizations and process the payments.  By avoiding automation, I allow folks to keep their jobs in the U.S. Postal Service, at my bank, and at all the organizations I make payments to.  I literally think about that every time I write and mail a check.

I don't mean to "shame" folks who don't have the time to write checks; I completely understand how difficult it must be to remember what bills must go out couple of times a month when you are also raising a family, working full time, and have other activities on your plate.  But when I hear about banks continuing to profit when they are downsizing and laying off workers, I want to be able to do my part to let the banks know that I need humans to be part of my interaction with them.  I have the time to do it because I don't have three kids.  Whenever I call my bank, I always insist on speaking with a human, too.  Technology, in the form of frustrating phone prompts or purely virtual money, is not always the answer.  I think of the moment, in The Handmaid's Tale, when Offred realizes she has no money she can access and that none of her plastic cards recognize her collected worth.  The abstraction is frightening.

3. Writing checks creates a paper/electronic photo account (that can be printed) of a monetary transaction and makes the transaction tangible.  It's not as good as when banks used to mail your checks back to you, stamped with the date the transaction went through, but you can print the photo version on good paper and have a record.  I still get paper statements mailed to me, too.  Writing out
The oldest paper book, the Nag Hammadi (Egypt)
 is 1,693 years old.
the record also allows me to physically take within what is happening with my money.  An electronic withdrawal that a machine at one organization makes from a machine at my bank (or is it just virtual, just energy, not connected to hardware at all - I don't even know!), a withdrawal that I may come to forget over time because it is constant and I don't see it or write it, ceases to exist in my consciousness.  I always know how to budget accordingly because I have regular interactions with my account and with paper records.  It is all in my hands and I interact with it.  Without paper records, we place way too much power in someone else's hands.  It's not convenient to have paper records - they are bulky - but they are tangible and they store for very long periods of time.  Electronic records are at the mercy of others.

Ultimately, one could argue to just do everything with cash.  You can't mail cash to pay your bills.  And, in the end, just like with Offred, we are all at the mercy of the economic trends; if someone important decides that my cash isn't worth anything, I will have to accept that.  Money, and what it represents, is always at the mercy of people outside of ourselves.  I never wanted to have a bank account to begin with.  I do not like having to put my money in a place where it becomes an intangible thing that someone else controls and uses for their own profit, often in ways that harm the larger world.  I used to cash my checks as long as I could before it became a necessity to have a bank account.  When I finally did get a bank account, I didn't want an ATM card because I felt it left me too vulnerable; the bank told me that I got one automatically, whether I wanted it or not.  Great.  In the end, it turns out you HAVE to have either that or a credit card to function.

Soon, we will have to function without checks, I suspect.  Until I am told that I can no longer use them, I will continue to do so.  I will continue to create a paper trail that other humans have to be witness to.  I will continue to voice my opinion, by writing checks, that it is more important to work together as a team and have good work for everyone, instead of having convenience that only makes the very few very rich.  I will continue to take responsibility for what is happening with my money, instead of letting a machine take on a responsibility that is too weighty for automation.  I will continue to do the unpopular thing for reasons that some folks seem way to busy to think about, unless they have the time because they have been laid off or downsized.

What they do is miraculous.  I'm thankful for it!
Or am I wrong?  Do you think about the person opening envelopes somewhere?  Or the mail carrier who works through rain or shine?  Or our booksellers, or the small business owners, or the people at call centers, all of whom have little to no work now because we've created things like Amazon, or automated phone systems?  Do you think of those folks?  I do.  I can't stop thinking about them.