Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In search of recycled paper checks

Brian and I don't pay for many things by check these days. Most of our bills get paid through online banking, and in stores, we typically use credit cards or cash. So basically, we only pull out the checkbook when dealing with individuals, or with those increasingly rare organizations (both businesses and charities) that can't handle credit or online payments. Over the course of an entire year, we might use maybe 20 checks.

This means that, in the seven years we've been banking with Provident, we've never actually had to buy checks before. When we opened the account in 2007, they gave us a box of 150 checks, and we just used the last of them two weeks ago. In fact, for most of those years, we've been using checks with the wrong address on them, because we bought this house shortly after opening the account and figured, "Eh, it's not worth ordering new checks; we'll just cross out the address and write in the new one until we use up the ones we have." And that's what we've been doing for the past seven years.

So when I finally used up that last check, I was really excited about finally being able to get some checks that had our real address on them. I logged into our Provident account, clicked around until I found the right link for ordering new checks, and punched in our account information. And up popped the fee for one box of plain, non-duplicate checks: $28.74. Really? I mean, okay, that one box can be expected to last us at least seven years, apparently, but still, we've been getting little coupons in the mail for years that say we can buy checks through the mail for as little as $3 or $4 a box. So, what, are bank's checks seven times as good?

Before spending $29 on a box of checks we might not even use up in our lifetime, I decided to look into other alternatives. And since I was going outside the bank's framework, I decided I might as well see whether it was possible to save a tree, as well as a little cash, by looking for checks made with recycled paper. A Google search on "recycled paper checks" led me to several sites claiming to sell them, though some of these turned out to be dead ends. (A site called CheckAdvantage, for instance, has a page for "recycled checks," but when you look at the actual descriptions, it turns out that these are just checks with designs that promote recycling; there's nothing to indicate that the checks themselves have any recycled fiber content.) I ended up finding just a handful of sites that sell checks using actual recycled paper:
  • Message Products are "printed on recycled paper with vegetable-based inks," though the site doesn't say anything about post-consumer content. Prices for new customers are $14.95 for one box, $22.90 for two—plus $6.50 for shipping and $2.95 per box for handling. Total for one box of checks: $24.40, just a few dollars less than the bank's price.
  • Check Gallery "prints checks on recycled paper with 30% post-consumer fiber, and uses biodegradable, vegetable-based inks, free of toxic solvents and residues." New customers pay $13 for the first box and can add a second box for just 10 cents. You can't see shipping costs until you placed an order, so I ran through the process and found that shipping is free by postal service, but they strongly push for the $8.25 UPS shipping. Either way, there's a handling fee of $5.90. So, minimum cost for these: $18.90 for one box.
  • Checks in the Mail has checks "printed on paper containing 30% post-consumer fiber and soy-based inks." These cost as little as $10 a box for the cutesy cartoon designs, or $18 to $21 for something a little more adult-looking. I also found a coupon code for free shipping with these, making them the best deal of the lot.
So far, I wasn't thrilled with my options. Yes, they were all cheaper than the checks from the bank, but they were all a lot pricier than the $4 a box the mail-order coupons had promised, and I didn't care much for the available patterns, either. And then I came across one more link: Walmart Checks. Yes, believe it or not, the country's leading evil megacorporation sells checks "printed on recycled paper containing 30% post-consumer fiber using only soy-based inks," in exactly the same patterns as Checks in the Mail, for only $7.46 a box. Standard shipping is $3.25, making the total only $10.71 per box—less than half the bank's price. But still—Walmart? Could I really bring myself to click that "buy" button?

Out of curiosity, I decided to see just how much of a premium I was paying for the recycled paper content. I did another search on "buy checks online," and I found that VistaPrint would sell me the same check patterns that Check Gallery had for only $9.99 for the first two boxes, plus $4.99 shipping. With a 25 percent discount for new customers, that would be only $12.48—for two boxes rather than one. That made them much cheaper on a per-check basis than any of the other options, and it would keep us in checks for, if not the rest of our lives, at least the life of this bank account. So I decided that was a compromise I could live with.

I was still surprised, though, that I hadn't been able to find any checks as cheap as the ones I'd seen offered through the mail. As it turns out, I was searching on the wrong term. When I tried just now searching on "cheap checks," here's where I started finding the real deals. Like SuperValue Checks, starting at $4 a box and $3 shipping. And Carousel Checks: $4.89 a box, with $5 for trackable shipping or bulk shipping for free.

Of course, we've already shelled out the $12.50 for the checks from VistaPrint, so it's too late for us to take advantage of these even better deals. (By the time we use up these checks, pay-by-paper technology may not even exist anymore.) But if any of you readers are in the market for new checks, or expect to be soon, it's not too late for you.
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