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Americans haven’t given up on paying with checks — but there’s a cost to it

The American love affair with checks may be more problematic than you think.

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Check? Cheque? Whatever you might call it, chances are you’ve written out one in the last month. The United States is one of the few countries that still relies heavily on checks as payment; Americans wrote, on average, 38 checks in 2015. That might sound small, but the checks add up: In 2012, the total number of checks written by businesses or individuals totaled 21 billion checks. In all, the dollar amount added up to $26.83 trillion.

The love affair with checks may be strictly American — countries in Europe, like Poland, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands stopped issuing checks over the last two decades — but the check originated in Italy centuries ago. As Italian merchants began to sell and trade with Muslim traders in the ninth century, they began to catch on to Muslim currency, the sakk. Instead of carrying heavy coins in purses, the traders used paper to instruct banks to exchange money from seller to buyer. As international trade grew, so did the sakk, which evolved into the cheque. Checks still posed some problems: Fraud was high, and cities even banned checks unless both parties could be present to cash them. However, negotiability in checking made the payment system more versatile, so checks could travel even farther across the globe.

Eventually, checks made their way to the Americas in the 17th century and quickly became the most popular form of payment. In fact, the currency we think of as cash wasn’t even printed by the U.S. government until after the Civil War. But as new banking technology like Zelle® comes in to replace outdated methods of payment, it still asks the question: Why do we still rely on checks? Learn why checks still are a widely used form of payment, and why their long reign over American currency may be slowing down.

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