Confession: Sometimes the checkbook doesn’t balance

At Caltech, when a group of students go out to eat, they have a rule:  Youngest non-math major figures out the check.  There’s a reason for that– the longer you go in math, the less able you are to do basic calculations.  Your head gets filled with proofs and (measures of infinity aside) it is rare that you encounter a number greater than say, 5.  Rarer still to encounter a number larger than 7 or 10.  So ideally there will be a freshman at the table who still remembers things like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

I was a math major in college.

So all of this is to say that I recently checked on my checking account balance on the website and saw that it was considerably lower than what the running balance in the check register was, to the point that it was less than the school tuition check that was about to be cashed.  I immediately transferred 1K from savings and dug out the checkbook to try to track down the error.

And I found an error in the past 3 months– A mis-subtraction that put me $100 off.  I carried that through.  I was still something like $300 or $400 off after that.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made an error in my basic math in the check register.  Sometimes I track it down.  Sometimes it’s something really stupid like counting a debit as a deposit.

Sometimes I make my partner track it down because it’s just too frustrating for me.

Sometimes I just give up.  That’s what I did this time.  I checked that all outstanding checks had been cashed and zeroed out the balance so it matched with what was on the website.

Usually errors aren’t such a big deal because I never add the interest to the check register, meaning I have a buffer just in case.  But sometimes an error is big enough that it is bigger than the cash buffer.  So far I’ve only had the bank draw from savings to cover a check once since getting a real job.

Do you use a check register?  How do you keep track of what is in checking?  What do you do when things don’t match up?

35 Responses to “Confession: Sometimes the checkbook doesn’t balance”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I thought i was the only one that couldn’t trust my mental math skills. I use a calculator and a check register. I used to reconcile monthly but I find that its easier to just go in and balance it every time I go into my online account. It seems less prone to errors. It drives me crazy when things don’t match. I have to find where the error originated. I also try to autopay bills out of my savings as that has a higher balance and I never feel the need to balance savings (not sure why) even though there are incoming and outgoing transactions.

    I am still making numbskull stupid mistakes post move though. This week I paid my credit card out of the wrong checking account..and now I have insufficient funds charges and possibly another late fee on my card. DOH. . I guess that’s the flaw with electronic payments. It’s easy not to notice/change your default payment option and tap the wrong account if you are not paying close attention. Lets hope that’s the last one. Office is more unpacked than last week so hopefully that is progress.


    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I also don’t feel the need to balance savings anymore. But I don’t keep enough in checking for that. Fortunately we have the account linked to savings, so they can make a draw off that without anything actually bouncing.

      We do have many bills set up electronically, though I have to press a button to say it’s ok. But we still have checks that can’t take electronic payment, mostly child-related. And I still have to put the electronic stuff in the register depending on how the electronic payment is set up since not all of them can draw from savings.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I add all my autopay things for the month to my register at the beginning of the month. And I do not autopay things that vary (like phone or electricity bills).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Me neither. I always press a button and record it in the registry if it is coming out of checking. Most of the autopay stuff I have connected to the credit card, which I like much better because it provides an extra layer.

  2. Kellen Says:

    Uhhh bigger confession. Never balanced my checkbook in my life.
    I sorta kinda keep track of outstanding payments, or upcoming payments, when trying to decide if I should add from the savings account to the checking account, but I often go for months without keeping up with it when I get busy.

    Honestly, the only checks that I need to keep track of are payments I make to my mother for my part of shared expenses (cell phone, pet sitting bills) and then occasional checks to people who have done work on my house.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I haven’t written a paper check in years, so I trust the bank to keep correct accounting of electronic transactions. But even before that I never kept a running balance; I would just look at the statement each month and see if my gut felt ok about it.

  4. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I do use a check register and it used to make me crazy when I was off…even by 50 cents! Now I don’t have time to track down every penny. I usually make some sort of adjustment once a month or so to account for any addition/subtraction errors I’ve made.

  5. Linda Says:

    I’m old enough that writing checks was a regular activity when paying bills and buying groceries. Back then, I would religiously balance my checkbook every month using a calculator. I did make an error once that resulted in a bounced check at the grocery store. I had not entered a transaction in the proper column (I entered it in the deposit column and not the debit column). I was quite ashamed to go back to that grocery store to pay the bill plus resulting fees and I never made that mistake again.

    Now, my paper checks are used mainly to pay for home services (electrician, plumber, etc.) and riding lessons. I enter them in the check register so I can refer to the check number when updating my Mint account, but I don’t balance the checking account anymore. I just keep my Mint account updated and look at my account activity at the banking site a few times a month.

    I have had to write some pretty large checks lately, including the final payment to the tour company for my upcoming vacation, and the second installment of my property taxes. The property taxes used to be paid by the bank from my escrow, but when I refinanced earlier this year I asked to waive the escrow requirement since there had been problems with my taxes getting overpaid in the past. So, this was my first time paying my property tax on my own and I was shocked at how much information the Cook County Assessor wanted me to squeeze on one little check: name and address of payee (OK, that was printed on the check already), phone number, email address, full street address of property, PIN number for property, and year and installment of tax payment. That was hard to fit on a standard, consumer-sized check!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The problem for us with just keeping track of the paper checks electronically is that some of these folks will take a month or more to cash a check! You’d think, say, college students would be more hard up for cash. (Or that they’d have asked to be paid monthly instead of bi-weekly when we gave them the option.)

      that is a lot of stuff on the check

    • Leigh Says:

      Are you sure you can’t use online bill pay to write the check for your property taxes? That’s what I do for mine. It’s worked reasonably well so far. I don’t have to write a check, mail it, or put a stamp on it. In fact, I mail things so infrequently that I’m still working on a book of 10 stamps that I bought over a year ago (one left).

      • First Gen American Says:

        My town outsources the online pay process and they charge a hefty fee to do it that a way..something like $15, so I still would do it the old fashioned way because one stamp was a heck of a lot cheaper.

      • Linda Says:

        Yes, I could have used online bill pay to have a check issued for my property taxes. But in Cook County, IL one can also pay property taxes at any Chase branch for free, too. Because I needed to visit the Chase branch anyway I decided to just make the payment while I was there. (I use my Ally accounts for most everything, but I also have a Chase checking account because they hold my mortgage and had a deal where I could get cash back on my mortgage payment if I had a free checking account with them.)

  6. Ana Says:

    We pay so many things automatically out of our accounts (mortgage, most bills) that “balancing the checkbook” doesn’t make sense. The checkbook is only for daycare, the water bill (which charges extra to pay online, wtf!) and people coming to work on our house. We keep spreadsheets, updated monthly, with our checking account balance, with regular monthly expenses factored in, so that we know where we are; we check that before we pay the big credit card bill.

  7. bogart Says:

    Good to know I’m not alone, well, actually, I already knew that. I don’t balance my checkbook, but I do keep a spreadsheet (Excel) detailing what’s in there, what’s cleared, what’s pending, and so on. I flag things that are e.g. tax deductible so they are easy to track down at the end of the year, and it makes it relatively easy to plan for encumbrances, though I’m not as good about that as I perhaps should be.

    But if there’s disagreement, beyond checking for obvious errors (misapplication of the “sum” function, particularly if I’ve added rows, is a common problem and easy to miss in Excel), I just dump more money in there, my time being worth money. Obviously a big amount I’d be more careful/diligent about figuring out, but it’s not worth it for smaller ones. With online banking, I do keep a pretty close eye on my actual balance, so I rarely feel too clueless.

    My CU will cut and mail paper checks on my behalf to pretty much anyone, anywhere, so I almost always use those rather than writing my own. The teen dogsitter down the street is an exception (I pay her promptly and will write a check if need be to do so), but I actually even have the CU mail checks to my mom (whom I see in person multiple times per week) because it’s just easier to keep track of from my computer than to dig out the checkbook, etc. etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is a really cool service.

      • Leigh Says:

        My CU’s bill pay doesn’t require the payee to be a business – it can be anyone with a name and an address. I’ve never used it for that, but it seems pretty simple. They’ll also mail me a check payable to me if I want.

      • bogart Says:

        Right. Mine does technically “require” every payee to have an account number, but I just assign myself one if I’m working with an entity that doesn’t have one, or use my last name.

    • Linda Says:

      I bank with Ally online and they will similarly cut and mail paper checks to entities that don’t have an electronic transfer option. I only use that for times I don’t need to present a check on the spot (such as to pay a service person) and when I don’t have electronic pay options, such as the water bill. To pay the dog walker and reimburse friends I love to use Ally’s Popmoney. It’s a great way to electronically pay/transfer money quickly without issuing a check. Chase also has a similar service that they advertise all the time.

    • EMH Says:

      Bank of America offers a similar service. I go online, type in a person’s name and address and BoA will send them a check. I have to remind the person that is receiving the check to look out for it since it is usually a nondescript envelope. The other thing that can be a concern is the money is taken out of your account when you “write” the check and not when it is cashed. Good for accounting but bad if the person never cashes the check or receives the check. Luckily, this has never happened to me.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    I use a check register. I use the payment/fee/withdrawal column to keep track of my checking account (using two lines for each transaction, the first to show what is being added and subtracted and the second to show the balance). Then I use the deposit/credit column to keep track of my main credit card (normal people think they never need to use negative numbers, but I am not like them–of course my credit card balance is usually negative). Then I use the balance column to show the total of those two numbers.

    I use a variety of methods to keep track of what is in checking (and what’s going on with my credit card). First, I tell myself I will record the transaction in the store. Or if it’s an online transaction I record it right then. Then when I file my receipts, I make sure it’s recorded then. Plus I periodically check my accounts online and add anything I have forgotten.

    And yes, things still don’t match up sometimes: I transpose numbers, or I add instead of subtract or vice versa or I forget to carry a 1 or carry a one that didn’t need carrying. Recently, I found that the waiter didn’t get the additional tip I’d left, so I had to add that back.

    When things don’t match up, first I try to find the problem. Whenever my balance is confirmed online, I put a check mark next to that subtotal so that I know everything before that point is good. Generally I have only a couple of weeks to go through. Sometimes I will just change all the totals to match; usually I will add another line that says something like “adjustment, see 7/30.” I have occasionally given up and started over, but that’s much less likely now that I can see everything all the time instead of just once a month when my statement comes in.

    No, I was not a math major. (In fact, my lowest grades were usually in math until I learned the trick of checking my work–magical!)

    This all started when I got my first checking account–back then I had a budget of $100/month (more like $200 in today’s dollars) in addition to tuition/books/room/board, and I really wanted to know exactly how much money I had at all times. I no longer need to balance my accounts to know how much I can afford to spend. Instead I use it to see how much I can afford to move into savings at the beginning of the month.

  9. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    Never balanced it since I started working. I write down in a register any paper checks I write, but stuff comes in and out electronically too. Back when it was just me, I’d look at the balance when I pulled money out of the ATM and if it looked about right — which it always did — I was happy. I just always made sure to have more than a month or two’s expenses in checking. That was possible in the beginning because I got a $2000 signing bonus (!), which covered month one. I realize keeping multiple months in checking is non-optimal for earning interest, but it means nothing will ever be overdrawn.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We usually keep one month in checking just because that’s how long it takes for all our big checks to clear (I move the money the first of the month), but in this case there was a complication with school tuition, which is more than one month’s expenses.

  10. moom Says:

    I use a spreadsheet…

  11. Leigh Says:

    I wrote some custom software. It does all of the math for me :) Sometimes it still messes up if I mis-type a transaction and then I have to go into the database and adjust a bunch of records, but that doesn’t happen all that often anymore.

  12. oilandgarlic Says:

    I used to balance my checkbook religiously. But that was when I used to write a lot of checks! Nowadays, I just check my bank statements (or go online) and make sure bigger amounts match up. I do scan for errors but I don’t think it’s as necessary to balance monthly as long as you do pay attention enough.

  13. chacha1 Says:

    I use my check register religiously to keep track of things. I “balance” it almost every month, and I use the quotes because it is perennially out of balance. I clearly do halfwitted things occasionally, but the thing that really makes me SMH is that the error is nearly always in my favor – e.g. for the past six months the bank thinks I have $268 more than *I* think I have. I just let the error ride and consider that my buffer, rather than trying to track down what can only be an arithmetic error.

    My general strategy for keeping my checking-account register clean is to use the account for very few transactions. As obviously I cannot be relied upon to do the math. I use it to pay bills and to buy groceries, and that’s about it.

    I do not use auto-pay, with one exception: our health-insurance premiums are charged to my rewards Visa. I pay nearly all other bills online, but always manually. I get paid every other week, so I’m online checking balances and looking to see if I’ve somehow omitted a charge from the register. I also monitor my credit accounts each payday to verify the charges (and schedule payments).

    I have not missed a payment, overdrawn, or in other comparable ways f**ked myself since changing banks more than 20 years ago in Georgia (I closed an account when there was still an outstanding check).

  14. rented life Says:

    I use a register, though I’ve noticed they have fewer pages than they used to, so I usually need to ask for an extra one. Once a week I go through the checkbook, adding any recipets that didn’t get added (we have an envelope to collect them), and then I pull up the account online and double check. If I’m missing something, I’ll put that in. I’ll also see what checks/online payments have gone through. I don’t follow the banks online amount because they usually don’t have all the payments processed that I’ve documented. Once every 1-2 months, I go through the statement and check for any errors. Usually I have about $80-120 less than what the bank says. It’s been like that for a couple years and I have no idea why.

    Many years ago I overdrew because I wasn’t paying attention. Since then I linked our checking and savings but I’ve not overdrawn since, as I’m looking at the checkbook and budget every week. Until our debt is down, I can’t see doing things any differently.

  15. monsterzero Says:

    I use a Google spreadsheet which is fine if you don’t mind the NSA knowing all your transactions. I get paid twice a month, so that’s when I balance my accounts and pay all of my bills off. One of my accounts is called “Wallet”, so I balance my wallet as well! Cash transactions are the least likely to result in a receipt, so Wallet is the account that’s most frequently off. If I really can’t figure out what happened, I bring it back into balance with an entry called “mystery”.

    My credit union also lets me make anyone a vendor. The electronic payment vs paper check process is transparent; I can only tell which method was used by seeing how long it takes the vendor to get paid.

    Over the years I’ve added a bunch of little features, e.g. I get the percentages of my money going to Needs, Wants, and Savings a la Elizabeth Warren’s Balanced Money Formula.

  16. Emily @ evolvingPF Says:

    We don’t balance our checking account officially. We don’t really ever write checks, actually. But we verify every transaction against our budget. Since we zero out our checking account, if there were any discrepancies they wouldn’t be perpetuated to the next month. The few times I have found that what I think our savings account balances should be don’t match the reality, I have spent the time to track down my accounting error (and it can take a while!).

  17. Leah Says:

    I used to balance my checkbook, but I write so few checks (and don’t use my debit card), so it’s not worth the hassle. I keep a $1k buffer in my checking account and call it good. That said, I am super, duper anal about making sure I am always paying my CC etc out of the correct account.

    The worst is when one balances the checkbook, etc and then finds the book is not actually balanced. This happened once in college, and I went back three months and didn’t find the error. I didn’t keep such a big cushion back then, unfortunately. Only a month later, when a check bounced, did I realize it took 4 darn months for someone to cash a check I gave them. Argh.

  18. tirzahrene Says:

    I haven’t balanced my checkbook in years. It was always an exercise in frustration for me, more so after I got a debit card. Now I just use my check register to record the checks I write, and that’s it.

    What I DO use is Mvelopes. It’s not really an expense I can justify, seeing as how I sunk a few hundred dollars into a lifetime subscription after I’d used it for a couple of years, but I don’t care. It pulls all my accounts into one place, it shows me balances, it tracks what I spend and where I spend it, it pays the bills I tell it to. I can’t justify the cost except in peace of mind, and I’m glad that I sunk the money into a lifetime subscription and can’t debate over it anymore.

  19. CARNIVAL OF PERSONAL FINANCE; BACK TO SCHOOL EDITION | Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance Says:

    […] ignored a checkbook error under $100 as well . Nicole from Grumpy Rumblings presents Confession: Sometimes the checkbook doesn’t balance, and says, “Nicole and Maggie confess that sometimes the check-book doesn’t balance, […]

  20. Carnival of Personal Finance #427 Says:

    […] Grumpy Rumblings: Confession: Sometimes the checkbook doesn’t balance […]

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