Old-fashioned check-writing may be on its way out, whether consumers want it to be or not.
Electronic methods, such as debit cards, credit cards, and online payments, are officially now more popular than checks, according to a three-year survey released late last year by the Federal Reserve.
Plus, technology is becoming so advanced that more retailers and service providers are accepting paper checks but then are automatically converting them into debit transactions because it's cheaper to do it that way and the companies get their money sooner.
"The research certainly shows the pace of change for electronic transactions is compelling and is going to be with us for a long time," said Richard Oliver, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and the Fed's product manager for retail payments.
"It's clear check volume will decline forever."
For 2003, the latest figures available, there were 44.5 billion electronic payments and 36.7 billion checks written, the Federal Reserve found. In two years, the Fed estimates, credit and debit cards will surpass checks as the most popular way to pay bills.
Nearly 30 percent of U.S. consumers pay bills online, according to an American Bankers Association/Gallup Consumer Survey last year.
U.S. consumers used the Internet last year to initiate more than 1 billion payments valued at $350 billion, according to NACHA - the Electronic Payments Association, in Herndon, Va.
Such electronic payments make sense for people who are savvy about computers and online banking, but those people should remember that their money will be taken much more rapidly, said Linda Sherry, a spokesman for Consumer Action, a national nonprofit advocacy and education group.
"The money comes straight out the day the bill is to be paid, so you miss the float you get when the check's in the mail," she said. "Also, you want to make sure the service is free."
The electronic payment association, which represents more than 11,000 financial institutions and regional payments associations, said the transactions converted into debit payments from paper checks by retailers climbed by 1 billion to 1.25 billion last year, a figure that is expected to hit 2 billion this year.
"They have to tell you they're going to do this on your monthly billing statement and they have to give the consumer a chance to opt out of it," said Michael Herd, a spokesman for the association.
Erin Ascione, a spokesman for cellular phone carrier Alltel, said fewer than 1 percent of customers have decided to opt out of the program since it started in 2003.
"Businesses everywhere are going this way," she said.
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at