What a nuisance cheques are. I've presently got two cheque books for the same bank: one that I've spent a very long time using up, and haven't got to the end of yet; and another the bank sent me a while back, that is still untouched, and may never come into use at all.
And yet these things, if found by a housebreaker, will tell that person who my bank is, and what my account number is. I can't leave them behind when I go away on holiday - where indoors could I hide them safely from an experienced thief? - and so they have to come along with me. To and fro, every trip. Just extra to pack.
And a useless extra at that. I simply don't use cheques nowadays. I looked at my Money Diary spreadsheets, to find out when I last did. It was early last year. Three cheques in January 2017. Two of them were birthday cheques to my nephew and niece - they still get a token birthday present from me. The other was a donation at a funeral.
Since then I've decided to send birthday money in the form of a suitable banknote tucked inside the card - surely a much more sensible option, as the worst that can happen is that somebody steals the banknote; a cheque would give away my key banking details, and what my signature looks like. And it saves the birthday girl or boy all the humdrum hassle of taking it to a bank.
As for donations, that can easily be done online.
With tradespeople coming to my house, it's mainly been cash all along, and not cheques. Cash is (rightly) associated with tax-evasion - something I should know a lot about, considering what I used to do for a living! - but tradespeople may genuinely need a lot of cash for out-of-pocket expenses, lunches included, and it's getting harder for them to get to a bank or cashpoint to draw some more. So I'm happy to help them out by having banknotes ready when we settle up. At least for smaller amounts. I'd expect a £500 bill to be settled in regular fashion - which nowadays means an electronic transfer of some kind. But not a cheque: that embroils them in handling charges, and it's an unfriendly way of making payment. Putting it another way, if the job were done well enough, but I didn't quite like their attitude or manner, then I'd 'punish' them with a cheque. Message: I won't be using you again.
The poor cheque! It's been in decline for decades now. But when I started work in 1970, payment by cheque was the usual thing, even for quite small amounts. You wouldn't pay for a lunchtime sandwich with a cheque, but you might well use one for most other things of any value. A crisp cheque glistening with ink, freshly written in your own fair hand. That's what fountain pens were invented for, surely! It was vulgar to reel off banknotes from a thick wad, like a flash tycoon or a used-car salesman. Cheques were the genteel way. Indeed, to have a cheque book at all meant you were a salaried person with a regular job, someone with a bank account, in an era when hoity-toity banks were still picky about whom they accepted as their customers - and precisely what services they would extend to them. To be trusted with a cheque book said something powerful about your creditworthiness. So to flourish one was the equivalent of showing off a solid credit rating - a glowing Experian report - in contemporary times.
And in the early 1970s, cheques became colourful, artistic and pretty. I was with NatWest then, and they had a beautiful line in cheque designs - flowers, birds, pastoral scenes too I think. That's chiefly why I chose them for my current account, rather than the Midland, or Barclays, or Lloyds, who stuck with the traditional, no-nonsense, staid designs in their house colours: yellow for Midland, blue for Barclays, green for Lloyds. Given a choice, I'd have had a prestigious Bank of England account, but by 1970 it had become impossible for an everyday customer to open a new personal account there, unless you were an employee (a girl friend was). So I settled for NatWest and their beautiful cheques.
But soon the advent of direct debits and heavily-promoted credit cards reduced the need to write a cheque at all, and their long decline set in. Ever one to adopt modern methods, I was using a Barclaycard from 1973, and an Access card (my 'Flexible Friend') from 1974, and those two cards became my new, trendy way of paying for things in boutiques and department stores. I still liked using cheques where or when it was expected, or if the trader wasn't geared up to accepting a credit card; but those occasions became fewer and fewer, until I used a cheque only for solicitors, my dentist, and at birthday-times. A point came when retailers were no longer keen to accept cheques. The first real sign of their impending death. The withdrawal of the 'cheque guarantee card' was another mortal blow.
It used to be well-known advice that if you ever attended one of those evening talks in plush hotels where an 'expert' would lead you through 'property investment' or 'retirement planning' or 'luxury holiday opportunities', then always leave your cheque book at home. Well, that's advice that needs updating - maybe to credit card. I say 'maybe' because the era of plastic cards may itself be drawing to a close, as electronic methods take over. There is already a perfected electronic solution to almost any payment situation where handing over notes and coin would be impractical. Solutions that don't include the handling of paper cheques with pen-squiggles on them.
For the present, cheques remain an option despite their half-proposed abolition. Traditionalists have howled in anguish, and have had their way, so far. Just as they have, for now, preserved our equally-useless low-denomination copper coinage. Who are those people? Why hang onto something that ought to go the way of the postal order and the telegram? Cheques are a relics from a past era, an anachronism. I'd prefer to see them get a well-deserved and honourable retirement.
You know, I've convinced myself.
I was thinking that, in the end, I would tear my cheque books up, and not think of using them any more as a means of paying somebody. It sounds drastic! But I've just done it.
And no regrets - just relief. In a stroke, this fixes a worrying hole in my financial security - having cheque books lying around at home that give away my banking details. Perfect pickups for a thief in a hurry, searching my cupboards and hoping to find something good.
And doing without a cheque book won't inconvenience me in any way. I suppose that if it became absolutely necessary to give somebody a cheque, I could go to my nearest bank branch (with ID and debit card at the ready) and get them to specially write out a cheque to that person, drawn on my bank account. But I can't easily envisage the circumstances in which that would have to be done, not in these days of instant electronic money transfers for any amount.
Not when buying a car. Not when buying a house. Not for a round-the-world cruise.
Well! That's another item I won't need to take on holiday with me any more, simply to keep it safe and sound and beyond the reach of any burglars waiting for my next departure for sunny Northern climes. Those gentlemen need to take note! There's nothing left in my home now that's worth all the effort of breaking in. I've taken it all with me. Unless you want my vast collection of old Ordnance Survey maps.