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The Lost Art of the Check Register

The Lost Art of the Check Register
Extension Educator and Agricultural Systems Economist
Woman working at computer
Preston Keres/USDA

For most farmers and ranchers, a checkbook register remains the main ledger of accounts for their operation. However, properly maintaining a checkbook register is a lost art.

What is a checkbook register? Traditionally, a checkbook register is a handwritten record of the checks and deposits for a single bank account. Today, it should reflect all the transactions that are posted to a bank account including automatic withdrawals, fees, interest deposits, etc. The greatest benefit of a properly maintained check register is being able to see an accurate balance for the account.

Where do you get a checkbook register? Checkbook registers are usually free when you order new checks or are available at your local bank. You can also print this digital version.

To start your checkbook, write the balance at the top righthand of the page. Now, record each transaction on a separate line. At minimum include the check number, payee name, and payment or deposit amount.

check register entry example

Next, calculate a running balance by subtracting the payments (debits) or adding the deposits (credits) to the previous balance.

check register entry example

Today, it is likely that you have some sort of automatic withdrawals or deposits that come out of or into your account. These types of transactions do not have a check number associated with them. Depending on the type of transaction, you may want to use the following abbreviations in place of a check number in the first column.

  • AD – Automatic Deposit
  • ACH – Automatic Clearing House
  • AP – Automatic Payment
  • ATM – Automatic Teller Machine
  • SC – Service Charge
  • DC – Debit Card
  • DEP – Deposit
  • EFT – Electronic Funds Transfer
  • FT – Funds Transfer

The example below shows how a deposit can be recorded in a checkbook register.

check register entry example

It is important that you compare your checkbook register against your bank account regularly. Often, automatic deposits (like interest payments) or withdrawals (like service fees) are omitted from the checkbook register.

Keeping an accurate checkbook depends on consistently recording transactions when the check is written, or the transaction is authorized. This helps you ensure that there are enough funds in the account for future transactions, minimizing the likelihood of overdrawing the account.

For example, check 233 was written on June 28 and it may take a few days for the check to clear the account. Until the check posts the balance reported by your bank, either online or on the June statement, will not match the checkbook register. In the case of an uncleared check, the balance reported by the bank will overstate the amount of money that is available in the account. Vice versa, an unposted deposit will cause the bank balance to understate the amount of money that is available in the account.

To denote when a transaction has posted to the bank, usually there is a column between the debit and credit column for you to place a checkmark. If your register does not have a “cleared” column, you can also place a check in the margin to the right of the transaction.

Once you are in the habit of recording transactions in your checkbook register, you may want to add more detail. If you are like most farms and ranches, the person writing the checks is different from the person balancing the books or categorizing transactions for tax purposes. Additional details may help both parties know the purpose for each transaction.

For example, is the expense paid for by check #233 tax deductible? If so, what tax category should $8,933.00 be attributed to? By looking at the single line check register entries above, we are unable to tell. We recommend a two-line check register system that also records tax category and/or memo line in addition to the previous information. The register below shows the recommended two-line check register system.

check register entry example

Regardless of which system you use, single line or two-line, review your check register regularly and work to improve its accuracy.