How do I balance a checkbook?

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Christine S writes:

Hi there. I just got your newsletter about our heads being buried in the sand. We haven’t balanced our checkbook since we’ve had it.

How do I start over and try this again? We really like our bank, but because of the trouble that we have had, I’m afraid they won’t let us reopen another account with the same benefits – although I may be totally wrong.


First, I would ask your bank and just see what they say about opening another account. It would be easiest to start fresh and keep up with it. If you are able to do this, I recommend leaving the account open for a few months so you don’t bounce a check if someone doesn’t cash it right away.

Another thing you might consider is to ask the bank to help you to get it balanced. Many banks are more than happy to help you do it. If you haven’t been writing down the checks in your register as you write them, you will only be able to get balanced on the ones that have already cleared the bank. If you have this problem, note the check numbers that have not cleared (the ones that the bank does not have a record of in the statements). You will be able to tell which one is the last one you wrote by looking at the number of the check in your checkbook that you have not yet written.

If the bank won’t help you get it straightened out, I would just pay with cash and money orders for one month. In one month, all of your outstandings checks will probably have cleared. Then after all your checks clear start fresh. This may seem like a pain but if you get all your bills together, you can get a money order for each when you go to the grocery store. Even though you have to pay a fee for each money order, remember, you’ll only be doing it for a month and the fees will be a lot cheaper than bouncing checks (or paying the "overdraft priveledge" fee).

Then I would start fresh and balance it every month when you get your statement. If you have too many checks to balance and that’s why you gave up in the first place then only use checks to pay your major bills (the mortgage, utilities etc.) and use cash for everyday spending (all your groceries, trips to Wal-mart, gas, etc.).



photo by: heidielliott


  1. Nancy says

    All the above is great, but this person seems to need instructions, step by step, on how to balance a checkbook, which I didn’t see in the response. This is harder for some people than others, as some of us are not “numbers-friendly” people!

    • says

      Nancy what they were asking was not how to balance a check book but what to do when they haven’t written checks down, had checks bounce and haven’t balanced it for a long time. The question was where do we even begin to straighten out the mess.

      If you or anyone needs step by step balancing a check book I can on day try to post something on it but the best thing to do would be go to your bank and ask them to show you and help you. Many people don’t realize this is a service of most banks and if your bank doesn’t have it I might change to another one but usually they do because it is to their advantage to for you not to have things in a mess.
      You could ask a friend or relative to to help you. You have to be careful and don’t allow yourself to use the excuse that I don’t know how or I’m not a “numbers- friendly” person. It is just simple adding and subtracting even my 10 year old grandson can handle it. If you put $100 in the bank and you write a check for $50 you have $50 still in the bank.
      If you really really can’t do even that much then you may have to just use cash and not have a bank account.
      I don’t mean this necessarily of you but being ignorant about something should not be used as an excuse for not learning or doing something. Learn or figure out a way. Don’t just throw up your hands and say “Oh well I can’t do this because …… so I don’t need to try to do anything”

  2. says

    While I can appreciate the answer from Jill, I can certainly relate to Nancy’s problem. I worked at a bank for 17 yrs and even tho working there, we all can have problems balancing the checkbook. I used to pay my bills from my local banks Bill Pay option on line. I thought this might be the solution, but for me it was a nightmare. I could not figure out when certain bills would be deducted from my balance and it was overwhelming! I never seemed to have the same balance that the bank did. So..I ordered checks by mail and started over. I quit using the on line banking and started doing manual checks, stamps, envelopes and the whole bit. I still have the option of looking at my checking account on line, but just for the balancing. I look at my account quite often on line but actually only balance about every 3 weeks. I still get a paper statement, but only because I like the paper trail. My bank has simple directions on the back of the bank statement to balance. I follow these instructions and have balanced every time. After I balance at this time, I draw a line and put the date I balance it. That way I know if there are any errors in the next balancing time, it will have a time frame laid out for me to check. Then this is easier to go thru just a few items than a whole checkbook. Sometimes I even balance every 2 weeks depending on how many checks I have written, and I do this by looking at my checking account balance
    on line. As you are going thru your statement, check off the checks that have cleared. If not cleared, put a circle in that space and you will know what is outstanding. When it clears, put a check inside the circle and you will know that it is accounted for. It will take a few times to get used to it, but even if I am off one cent, I search and search until I find it. I know that sounds crazy, but I now have better control of my money. If you have a debit card, just make sure your write DEBIT where the check number would go, and treat it as a check and deduct from your checking balance. Sometimes if you lose the receipt, you can pick it up on line from your bank as those transactions go thru and are posted right away. I know this is alot of info, but hope it helps somebody.

    • says

      Part of the problem some have is they don’t balance their statement every month. You have to keep on top of it and if you are off even one cent you have to keep at it until you balance it. One thing I do a little different then most and that is instead of checking off each check that is in I just check off the ones which aren’t in instead.This way I have to make less checks and it is a mental thing for me too not to have all these marks all over my check book to confuse me compared to just the couple I have for checks not in.

      There are many different ways to do it you need to find what makes you comfortable. One thing though is I use as much cash as I can, never use a debit card so at the end of the month I have very little paper work to deal with. It usually takes me all of 15 mins to balance my bank statement each month because of this.

    • janie says

      I also relate to Nancy’s problem and agree to most of what Pat had to say. I also agree with Jill regarding marking off the checks that have NOT cleared. I had problems with all the marks. Highlighters work well as does a red pen. As to being ‘number friendly’ There are those of us who seem to be gifted in the ‘letters’ dept but a total screw up when subtracting numbers. If I do not keep a close eye on my check book and do it every month, I wind up once again struggling with the adding & subtracting. The key, of course, is to keep on top of it. If you’re not good with numbers, all the more reason. To throw up your hands and say “I can’t” is ridiculous, as frustrating as it can be, even if you become ill and unable to keep it up, find a friend or someone you are comfortable with to help you. If you are not good at math, even simple math, sitting on it will make it worse. It won’t go away. It is like doing dishes, the longer they sit the harder it is to remove the grime. Putting off your balancing act is like “giving” your banking establishment, money. Believe me the fees add up…..

  3. Lorie says

    Don’t over complicate it. If (mind you that is a big one for some) you have written in and out everything, and you just haven’t balanced to your statement, it is not hard.

    take your statement, a highlighter, and a red pen.

    begin at the start of the current statement. Go LINE BY LINE and check off within your register every item that is listed as having cleared.

    then, use your highlighter to mark anything you have checked and hasn’t cleared.

    Take the bank’s balance, subtract off each item you have highlighted, and that balance should match yours.

    I was a bank teller for years, and SO many people over complicated this.

  4. says

    I only have 3 cheques that I write.
    hair dresser.
    for cash so I can put it into my account here in town.
    and my husbands massage therapist.
    these are always the same amount so that makes it easy.
    The bills are paid online debit card or cash are for the rest of the money we spend.
    My bank statement is on line as well. This keeps paper at home is non-existent which is good since I am terrible at keeping track of these things.
    I have to do it this way as I am math dyslexic and cannot follow numbers for love nor money. Failed every math class I ever had to take no matter how hard I worked at it.
    The best way to balance a cheque book is to find a system that works for you, and refine it as you discover it.

    • says

      I understood it Pat. Don’t feel too bad. You have just run into the problem I so often have. Some of these things really are very simple but to try to explain them in words can cause them to sound complicated.
      I have been wanting to do a video on how to hang clothes on a clothesline for awhile now because it is so easy it’s almost childish but to try an explain it in a simple way is almost beyond me.
      I joke all the time too. I have a 400 or more page book done on organizing and housekeeping but to try and put it in a form which makes sense, simple and is easy to understand is more complicated then most people realize. So like I said don’t feel bad and what you said did make sense to me.

  5. says

    Thanks Jill. Although I was very fortunate to learn how to hang clothes on a clothesline when I was younger, thanks to my grandmother. :) You have to just smile and go on. I do like your website suggestions on many many things and I think that they are very easy to understand. Keep up the good work, it is very much appreciated!!

  6. Marilyn says

    I don’t have too much trouble balancing my checkbook. I only use checks for bills (i/e telephone, cell, electric) Items that aren’t in full dollar amounts I round up to the next dollar. Cuts out the math problem, and I am a few cents ahead the next month. If a check hasn’t cleared, I circle the space that us usually used for the check mark and it is so easy to find when balancing my checkbook the following month. Also no charges for checks or any checking account fees. (This might be changing with new legislation, so I have heard)

  7. Jaime says

    Have you tried using an Excel spreadsheet? Excel is part of Microsoft Office in case you didn’t know. You can set it up to get it to do the math for you. I would suggest contacting the bank and finding out what your current balance is and what checks have already cleared. Start column A with your current balance then in the next box down in column A, which is called A2, A3, A4, an so on, type in the amount from each check, debit, fee, etc… Then in column B, beginning in the second box down, which is called B2, type in the following “=(A1)-(A2)”. This will automatically subtract your first check amount from your current balance. In the next box, called B3, type “=(B2)-(A3)”. Then in box B4 type “=(B3)-(A4)”. If you follow this calculation pattern in the whole B column and just type in the amount of each check in the A column, then the B column will always show your balance after each check clears through the bank. I know this sounds very complicated but once you see it on the Excel spreadsheet it will make alot of sense. You will also notice that it just a computerized version of your check register. I hope this helps.

  8. says

    Grandpa Terry has a great website on budgeting your money and he also has a check register that figures your balance for you. you can get a free budget and bill organizer from him at he helps you make a budgeting notebook with all the tools you need for free. you can subscribe if you want but you don’t have too. i have used this and it is great.

  9. Chris says

    For me balancing a checkbook was made easier by using a notebook as a register, because there is more room in which to write. I think of my checkbook as an exercise in basic math and organization.

    Each debit or check is notated as it occurs, not after it has cleared the bank; that’s just too iffy and leads to bouncing funds and exorbitant fees.
    Along with each debit/check is a description of the transaction and the date. Line by line, keep the format the same; it’s easier to read. Neatness also helps to keep things straight within the checkbook.

    Deposits are logged in right away, in the same fashion as the debits. As in other areas of life “document, document, document” .. .. .. it’s a useful tool.

    Budgeting is built around knowing what your income is, and what your bills/indebtedness are. Believe it or not, some folks are not able to accurately describe their monthly obligations, altho they are quite sure of their income.

    Keeping that budget is largely dependant upon keeping an accurate checkbook.

    • says

      This is so true Chris. I am forever telling people to stop burying their heads in the sand because it only makes things worse. Not only do a lot of people not have a clue to what they spend let alone mess with their check book but you would be shocked at how many don’t even open their mail with their bills and just leave them in piles or stuffed in sacks which probably accounts for at least as much if not more then not balancing a checkbook.

  10. Penny S says

    One of my sons (has a college degree) was always overdrawing his account simply because he did not remember to write down the amount of EVERY check that he wrote in his registery, therefore he could not possibly keep up accurately with his account balance. He finally changed to a checkbook style that had carbon paper behind each check leaving him a carbon copy of every check that he wrote. This made it possible for him to keep a accurate register balance.Maybe this idea will help someone else.

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