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Out of checks? Bypass the bank for a cheap refill

In an era of debit cards and automated online payments, the old-fashioned paper check appears to be holding its own.

Consumers wielding checkbooks and pens accounted for an estimated 55 percent of all checks written in 2001, 30 billion of the 54.5 billion written last year, according to ESP Consulting, a Salisbury, Md., research firm specializing in payment systems. (The balance were checks drafted by businesses, excluding paychecks.)

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While Leon Majors, ESP's president, expects to see check volume slowly beginning to trend down when this year's figures are released, he says a vast majority of Americans will continue to write checks for years to come. For 50 years, he says, banks have "trained" customers to use checks. Another reason: Lingering doubts among some consumers about the security of electronic transactions.

That means millions of Americans will continue paying the fees and penalties often associated with checking. But there are ways to save.

The most obvious: Shop around. When ordering checks, for instance, it's useful to compare the prices charged by your bank with those offered by check-printing companies, many of which now offer a direct service to bank customers.

Stuart Alexander, vice president of investor relations at Deluxe, a check-printing company in St. Paul, Minn., says 20 percent of the personal check orders his firm processes come directly from the public. Most of that growth, he says, has occurred in the past few years.

A website operated by a unit of Deluxe, www.checksunlimited.com, offers first-time customers a box of 200 plain checks for $6.50. Returning customers pay $8.95 for a box of 200. Regular mail delivery is free. By contrast, Fleet Bank charges $14.50 for 200 plain checks, plus $3.55 for postage. It costs the same to reorder.

Customers generally order direct from check-printing companies to save money or because of the variety of checks offered, says Mr. Alexander. Still, he allows that many banks do offer free checks to clients who hold certain types of accounts.

Banking expert Gary Stein, a partner at the Capital Performance Group, in Washington, advises consumers to zero in on the checking account that best matches their financial habits in order to cut fees.

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A key factor to keep in mind when selecting a checking account, he says, is the minimum-balance requirement. Finding a level that you know you can maintain is essential to securing free- or low-fee checking.

If you have little or no savings and are prone to bounce checks from time to time, then it's critical to find a bank that offers low penalty fees or overdraft protection at a reasonable cost.


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