Thanks to creative entrepreneurs who aren’t content with the status quo, banking and shopping have come a long way in the past couple of decades. Younger generations no longer recognize financial tools their parents found indispensable. The Internet and smartphones have given rise to new technology that’s made our lives easier and helped us save money. Here are five financial tools that a few Luddites still cling to, but the rest of us no longer need.
1. A Checkbook
Electronic banking has made checkbooks virtually obsolete. You can complete almost any financial transaction with a credit or debit card, an ACH or wire transfer, online bill pay, mobile payments and online and social payment systems like PayPal and Venmo. For those on the cutting edge, there’s even bitcoin and other virtual currencies.
The new payment methods are faster and more secure than checks, and more and more of us are using them. In 2012, about 15% of noncash transactions were made by check, according to the Federal Reserve, compared to about 50% of noncash transactions in 2003. Now, when people do use checks, they use them for large transactions that average more than $1,400. Debit cards are, by far, our favorite way to pay.
You don’t need checks to give money as a gift or to pay your bills. One of the only times you might still use a check, in fact, is if you regularly pay a small business that doesn’t accept other forms of payment, and you want to be able to trace or prove the transaction (which you can’t do with cash). When it comes to an emergency, cash is still king: In a power outage, for instance, businesses may be reluctant to accept checks as payment since they won’t be able to use their usual electronic check verification systems.
Some people insist that it’s still important to learn how to balance a checkbook, but the truth is that instantaneous electronic transactions, online banking software and personal finance apps accomplish this chore more easily. Need to know how much available cash is in your checking account? Just go to the scheduled payments page of the online bill pay screen and see what your balance will be in the next week, two weeks or month after all your scheduled payments go through. You can use your bank’s smartphone app to check your balance after your latest debit card purchase and set up alerts to tell you when your balance is low. If it is, you can instantly transfer funds from a linked account at the same bank. And software like Mint or Personal Capital can help you keep track of all your credit cards and bank accounts in one place so you always know what bills are coming due, how much you have in each account and what your balance is on each credit card. (Learn how a few of these services compare in BillGuard Vs. Mint Vs. SigFig Vs. Personal Capital.)
2. Deposit Slips
Back in the day, you could deposit a check two ways: in person at the bank or through the mail. Both methods required you to fill out a deposit slip, a check-sized piece of paper on which you filled in the date, your name, the number of the bank account you wanted to deposit your check or checks to and the amount of the check. Bank tellers wouldn’t accept a check without a deposit slip. (Another thing we don’t miss: the clueless customer holding up the line at the bank because they hadn’t filled the slip out.)
Automated teller machines (ATMs) started the phase-out of deposit slips. The machines could identify your account using your debit card and personal identification number (PIN). You typed in the amount of your check and selected the account it should be credited to. No deposit slip was necessary.
Remote check deposit through the Internet made deposit slips even less necessary. Today, the simplest way to deposit a check doesn’t even require you to leave the house. You can scan your endorsed check and upload the image to your bank online, or use your smartphone to take a photo of the check and transmit it to your financial institution through its mobile banking app. (Learn more in What Are The Best Mobile Banking Apps? and The Future Of Mobile Banking.)
3. Handheld Calculators
Do you remember when calculators could only add, subtract, multiply and divide? When they were so expensive your whole department at work had just one that everyone shared? How about those solar-powered electronic calculators that didn’t work in dim light? Thankfully, we don’t have to depend on those anymore. Between the spreadsheet software on your computer or tablet, the calculator software on your smartphone and online calculators for everything from getting out of debt to estimating mortgage payments, when was the last time you used a stand-alone, handheld calculator? High school? Maybe college math class?
Today’s calculator software makes it possible to perform in seconds complex financial calculations that took forever on handheld electronic calculators. Accuracy has improved, too; computers make it easier to see any typos. The need to memorize complex formulas has nearly vanished, too. While bookkeeping and accounting whizzes might memorize the spreadsheet formulas they use regularly, the rest of us can Google equations as we need them. And when you’re at the grocery store and you’re not sure which is a better deal – the small box of Lucky Charms that’s on sale or the family size box that isn’t – you can whip out your smartphone, divide the price by the number of ounces in the box, and see which option offers the best value – without looking like a dweeb.
4. Travelers Checks
One of the first steps of a trip abroad used to be getting in touch with American Express weeks in advance to purchase travelers checks (or cheques, as it calls them.) If you’re a millennial or Gen Z’er, you have no idea what we’re talking about. These slips of paper used to be the safest and best way to carry your money around in a foreign country. Some establishments would accept them as payment, and banks would exchange them for local currency if you needed cash. Travelers checks were safer than cash because their unique serial numbers meant they could be tracked and replaced if they were lost or stolen. But if you still had checks left over when you got back to the states, you had to take the extra step of turning them back into cash or depositing them to your bank account, which might incur another fee.
For the last decade or so, travelers checks haven’t been necessary. ATMs are prevalent abroad and tend to offer the best exchange rates. Some don’t even charge fees, thanks to relationships between foreign and domestic banks. It’s easy to make withdrawals throughout your trip and turn your home bank account balance into local cash. Credit cards have become much easier to use abroad, too. They also offer excellent exchange rates, especially compared to exchanging U.S. dollars at a foreign bank or getting fleeced at a currency exchange kiosk. It’s even possible to get a credit card that won’t charge you any foreign transaction fees. Furthermore, travelers checks aren’t as widely accepted as they once were. (For related reading, see Travel Smart By Planning How You’ll Pay.)
Inflation has so diminished coins’ value that we no longer stop to pick up spare change we find on the ground, and any coin change we get when we pay cash goes straight into the tip jar. Some of us keep coin jars at home to collect our change, but how often do we pull coins out to make purchases? When the coin jar is full, we take it to the nearest Coinstar machine to trade it in for an Amazon gift card.
Coins used to be particularly useful for vending machine purchases. Finicky bill readers often didn’t work except on pristine notes; if you wanted a soda or a bag of chips, a handful of quarters was your best bet. Coins were also necessary if you wanted to park in an older but highly trafficked part of the city where there were no parking lots, only metered street parking. Now, both vending machines and parking meters commonly accept credit cards.
The Bottom Line
Technological innovation has replaced what once seemed like indispensable financial tools with superior alternatives. Ten years from now, we’ll probably be wondering why we ever wore out the back pockets of our jeans carrying a wallet full of plastic cards around.