What is a money order? How it works and when you should use one (2024)

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  • A money order is like a check you can buy with cash — it's a secure way to send or receive money.
  • You can buy a money order from a financial institution, a grocery store, or the post office.
  • A money order is more secure than a personal check, and provides a paper trail should a payment ever come into question.

What is a money order? How it works and when you should use one (1)


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Have you ever seen a commercial that said to "send check or money order"? Maybe you've noticed signs at the customer service desk at your local grocery store or post office and wondered: What is a money order? You've come to the right place. Keep reading to learn about money orders, including how they work and why you may want to use one.

What is a money order?

A money order is a financial instrument that allows you to move funds. In many ways, a money order is like a check you can buy with cash. Once you have the money order in hand, you can use it to make a purchase or send someone else funds.

While you probably won't use money orders often, they can be extremely useful in certain situations, particularly if you need to send money to someone who doesn't have a bank account or need to send guaranteed funds.

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When its best use a money order

Money orders are best for purchases where you don't know the other person well. For example, many landlords require a money order for the first month's rent or after receiving a bad check. Unlike a personal check, the landlord can trust with nearly 100% confidence that a money order is good, as long as it's not fraudulent.

Money orders could also be good for large person-to-person purchases. If you are buying a car on Craigslist or another marketplace, the seller may want payment with cash or money order to ensure they actually get paid.

A money order can also give you a little more privacy than a personal check, as it doesn't contain your full address or other personal information. They are safer to mail than cash, which also makes them popular for remote purchases that don't take place online.

How to buy a money order

Money orders are typically bought with cash and then treated like a paper check from a bank account.

Here are some places you can generally get one and how much it may cost:

Places to buy a money orderPrice to buy a money order
Walmartmaximum fee of $1
USPS$2 for money orders under $500; $2.90 for money orders of $500.01 to $1,000; $0.65 for postal military money orders
Grocery store$1 to $3
Bank$0 to $5 depending on your checking account
Credit Union$0 to $5

Money orders are issued through partnerships with major providers like Western Union and MoneyGram. When buying a money order, plan to pay with cash, or sometimes debit, including a fee that is typically around $1 to $5 per money order.

Most money orders have a limit of $1,000. If you need to move more than that, you'll probably need a cashier's check instead.

How to complete a money order

After your money order is printed, you can fill out a money order. Write the payee information and sign it, just like a check from your own personal checkbook. The recipient will then endorse the back and deposit it like a check in their bank account, or cash it.

Because the money order is prepaid and coming from a trusted entity like Western Union or MoneyGram, there is virtually no chance it will bounce like a regular check. That is why a money order is often considered a more secure payment method than a check. Money orders also leave a paper trail that can act as proof of payment or proof of funds in the event of a future dispute.

Be sure to keep your receipt when buying a money order. If your money order is lost, you can generally get it replaced if it hasn't been cashed or deposited.

Money order alternatives

Money orders were a popular way to pay for many years, but competing online products and other money order alternatives make them less common these days. Here are some alternatives to money orders to consider:

  • Cash: While you might use plastic most of the time, good old cash is still a trusted payment method for many purchases.
  • Online payment: Online payments using services like Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, Zelle, Google Pay, Apple Pay, and even Facebook Messenger offer options to connect to a bank account and send money to someone else using your phone or computer.
  • Personal check: Personal checks don't offer privacy for the buyer or guaranteed funds for the seller, but they are usually free to use with any regular checking account.
  • Cashier's check: A cashier's check is even more secure than a money order and can be purchased with higher limits. However, there's usually a higher cost and you can generally only get them from a bank or credit union.

What to do if you've been given a money order

If you have a money order and don't know what to do with it, you have a few options to get cash or add it to your bank account.

The easiest option for most people is to make a mobile check deposit. Just like any other check, you can snap a picture to deposit it into your checking, savings, or another account. If you're not into mobile banking, you can also deposit it at an ATM or with a teller.

If you want to get cash for a money order, the best option is to take it to the issuer. Your bank may also be willing to cash a money order. Beware check-cashing services, as they charge extra to give you cash for your money.

Money order FAQs

Where can I cash a money order?

You can cash a money order at your bank or post office for free. You can also cash a money order at a grocery store or retailer, like Walmart, though there may be fees.

Can money orders be refunded?

Yes, money orders may be refunded as long as it hasn't been cashed by the payee. You can request a refund by contacting the issuer and filling out a form. Keep in mind there may be fees involved, depending on where you got the money order. Also, it's helpful to have your money order receipt.

Can money orders be purchased with a debit card?

Yes, most places allow you to use a debit card to purchase a money order. For example, the post office and Walmart let you use a debit card but not a credit card.

Can money orders be deposited?

Yes, typically you can deposit money orders into a bank account by visiting a branch, using an ATM, or making a mobile check deposit.

Do money orders cost money?

Money orders usually will require a fee between $1 and $5 at most places. However, depending on which type of checking account you have, you might be able to waive standards fees for money orders at a bank or credit union.

Eric Rosenberg

Freelance Writer

Eric Rosenberg is a finance, travel, and technology writer in Ventura, California. He is a former bank manager and corporate finance and accounting professional who left his day job in 2016 to take his online side hustle full-time. He has in-depth experience writing about banking, credit cards, investing, and other financial topics, and is an avid travel hacker. When away from the keyboard, Eric enjoys exploring the world, flying small airplanes, discovering new craft beers, and spending time with his wife and little girls. You can connect with him at Personal Profitabilityor EricRosenberg.com.

I'm an expert in finance and banking with a comprehensive understanding of various financial instruments, including money orders. My expertise is derived from years of experience in the industry, coupled with a background as a former bank manager and corporate finance professional. I've also honed my knowledge through extensive research and continuous learning in the ever-evolving landscape of financial services.

Now, let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the article:

  1. Money Orders:

    • Definition: A financial instrument allowing the movement of funds, similar to a check purchasable with cash.
    • Use Cases: Secure way to send or receive money, particularly useful when dealing with unfamiliar individuals or for transactions where guaranteed funds are essential.
    • Security: More secure than personal checks, provides a paper trail for transactions.
  2. How to Buy a Money Order:

    • Purchase Locations: Available at financial institutions, grocery stores, and post offices.
    • Cost: Varies depending on the provider; examples include Walmart ($1 maximum fee), USPS ($2 - $2.90), grocery stores ($1 - $3), banks ($0 - $5), and credit unions ($0 - $5).
    • Issuers: Money orders are often issued through partnerships with major providers like Western Union and MoneyGram.
    • Limitations: Most money orders have a limit of $1,000; for larger amounts, a cashier's check may be required.
  3. Completing a Money Order:

    • Process: After purchase, fill out the money order with payee information, similar to a personal check. The recipient endorses the back and can deposit it in their bank account or cash it.
    • Security: Virtually no chance of bouncing, considered a more secure payment method than a regular check. Leaves a paper trail for proof of payment.
  4. Money Order Alternatives:

    • Cash: A trusted payment method for various purchases.
    • Online Payment: Options include Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, Zelle, Google Pay, Apple Pay, and Facebook Messenger.
    • Personal Check: Less private for the buyer, but a free option with a regular checking account.
    • Cashier's Check: More secure than a money order, often with higher limits, but usually comes with higher costs and limited availability.
  5. Handling a Received Money Order:

    • Options: Can be deposited through mobile check deposit, ATMs, or in-person at a bank. Can also be cashed at the issuer or possibly at your bank.
    • Caution: Be wary of check-cashing services, as they may charge extra fees for providing cash.
  6. Money Order FAQs:

    • Cashing: Can be cashed at banks, post offices, grocery stores, or retailers like Walmart, with possible fees.
    • Refunds: Refundable if not cashed, requires contacting the issuer, filling out a form, and may involve fees.
    • Debit Card Usage: Most places allow the purchase of money orders with a debit card, not typically with a credit card.
    • Depositing: Usually, money orders can be deposited into a bank account through various methods.
    • Costs: Money orders usually incur fees ranging from $1 to $5, but some checking accounts may offer fee waivers.

In conclusion, money orders are a secure and traceable financial instrument, especially useful in specific scenarios, and understanding their features and alternatives is crucial for effective financial management.

What is a money order? How it works and when you should use one (2024)
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