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The value of reconciling your check accounts

Saved from my own stupidity! Whew…

The credit union still sends paper statements, and so I still reconcile my accounts against the monthly statements. This is a function of mental laziness: I’ve never worked up enough energy to figure out how to reconcile against the online records.

But I do keep an eye on my accounts online, and this month I wondered why the CU’s bottom line was SO radically out of whack from Quicken’s. Alarmingly out of whack, one might even say.

Come to find out, I had failed to shred an $840 check I thought I’d voided, but instead had blithely sent it along to Vanguard…and then wrote and sent an identical check to replace it. Oops!

Meanwhile, believing the first check had been atomized, when my next extra-large paycheck arrived I wrote a third check to Vanguard in the same amount. Each of these payments was to transfer money from a second income stream into savings. So, where I thought I’d written checks for $1,680, I actually had arranged to transfer $2,520. This error would plunge my checking account to the bottom of a puddle of red ink the depth of Lake Tahoe!

Luckily, I had not yet mailed the last check. (And luckily, I had not taken Vanguard up on the opportunity to make electronic transfers from my checking account directly into mutual funds.) So, voiding and shredding the third check recovered the error.

If I hadn’t been in the habit of reconciling my bank accounts regularly, I wouldn’t have tumbled to that Senior Moment until it was too late to avert an overdraft.

Catching your own errors is just one good reason to reconcile your accounts at regular intervals. We all make mistakes-and even the bank sometimes enters errors in customers’ accounts (Johnson Bank once credited me for $10,000 deposited for someone else!). It also will allow you to catch fraudulent transactions. Personal finance software such as Quicken or MS Money hugely simplifies this chore, or in the case of the arithmetically challenged (such as moi), makes it possible.

If you don’t use a program to keep track of your funds, you should reconcile your checkbook each month. The steps are as follows:

  • Compare your check register with the statement. In your check register, subtract any charges (checks, ATM withdrawals, automatic payments, bank fees) appearing on the statement that you haven’t already deducted from your balance. Write this figure down.
  • Still in your check register, add any new inflows, such as deposits, automatic paycheck deposits, and interest or dividends. Add these to the amount you got in step 1.
  • Now enter any deposits made after the statement’s ending date. Add these to the total you obtained in step 2. Write this total down.
  • Next, in your register, check off each check that the statement shows as as having cleared the bank. On a separate piece of paper, list the check numbers and check amounts. When your list is complete, add the check amounts to obtain a total.
  • Subtract the total you got in step 4 from the figure you got in step 3. The result should equal your check register balance.

If it doesn’t, the first thing you should do is check all your arithmetic. If that doesn’t reveal the error, then you get to compare each figure in the statement and the check register, very very carefully. Over and over and over again.

Programs like Quicken, as you can see, circumvent a great deal of agony, first by doing the math for you and second by making it relatively easy to spot errors. If you’re reading this blog, you probably already use financial software. But lest you wonder why your mom or your weird cousin Bob has never reconciled a checkbook, ever, and figures the account is out of money when the checks run out, it may be that she or he is math-challenged. There is simply no way I could reconcile my bank accounts manually — it’s flat out of the question. I’ve tried. After I finished tearing out all my hair, I just gave up. If SDXB hadn’t insisted that I try Quicken, I would have no idea what is going on with any of my accounts.

What a mitzvah! The cheapest PCs out there will run Quicken, Money, or downloaded freeware. It’s well worth encouraging the arithmetically puzzled and the computer-bamboozled to learn how to use such a program, even if they never do anything else with a computer.

1 Comment left on iWeb site

Mrs. Accountability

Clicked through from the 156th Carnival of Personal Finance to read about your expensive doggies – hubby and I have one that we love so much, hope nothing expensive ever happens, we’ll go in the poorhouse for him.I agree with your reconciling checking accounts post – I read on a blog not too long ago that the person never did reconciliations, and why they didn’t think it was necessary to do so.I would be a bundle of nerves!The blog writer said they watch their account online regularly, so felt comfortable to not reconcile.I have reconciled my accounts for over 25 years with both paper statements and online statements, and have found enough errors that I would not be comfortable giving up this monthly chore.I read your “Life’s a Killer” story, awesome how you handled your stress situation.I also participated in the 156th CoPF (my 3rd entry) with my free Gas Calculator (MS Excel format).I really like your writing style, adding you to my reader.Nice to meet you!

Monday, June 9, 200807:01 AM