How Does a Money Order Work?

By David Wolinsky · May 16, 2023 · 6 minute read

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How Does a Money Order Work?

Money orders are a form of payment that are sometimes very useful if you need to transfer funds to someone. They can be obtained from various outlets, at typically a low fee, and can be a good way to move cash when a person doesn’t have or doesn’t want to use a bank account.

Here, you’ll learn more about what money orders are, how they work, when to use them, and what alternatives to money orders exist.

What Is a Money Order?

Think of a money order as a paper check that can never bounce because it has been prepaid by the sender. It can be cashed or deposited just like a check, but it offers a few benefits over checks beyond never bouncing.

For one thing, if for whatever reason you don’t have a bank account, that isn’t a problem. You don’t need a bank account to get a money order, cash one, or even use money orders to pay bills.

To send a money order, here’s the protocol of the U.S. Postal Service:

1.    Take cash, a debit card, or a traveler’s check. You cannot pay with a credit card.

2.    Fill out the money order at the counter with a retail associate.

3.    Pay the dollar value of the money order plus the issuing fee.

Recommended: Can You Buy a Money Order With a Credit Card?

Where to Get a Money Order

Many of the biggest banks offer money orders and often require that they be purchased at a branch. There can be a $5 to $10 fee when buying a money order worth up to $1,000 (though the fee may be waived for premium accounts).

Sometimes the money order fee is also waived for members of the military. However, many banks require that you already have an account with them to purchase a money order.

Money orders are also issued at places like Walmart (with a maximum fee of $1, and the exact fee varying by location), convenience stores, credit unions, and the Postal Service.

Postal Service fees for money orders are based on the dollar amount: $1.45 for a money order of up to $500, $1.95 for one from $500 to $1,000 (which is the maximum amount for a single money order), and 50 cents for postal military money orders issued by military facilities.

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Advantages of a Money Order

Money orders may be safer than some other forms of money. For example, while a check contains sensitive personal information like your home address, phone number, and bank account and routing number (plus the name of anyone else on the account), a money order usually only contains the names of the payer and payee.

So a money order is usually a more anonymous and therefore a potentially more secure method of payment than a check, although some money order issuers may require an address. That’s usually in case the check’s payee needs to contact the sender about the payment.

Sometimes both halves of the transaction may have to include this information. If you’re unsure, the best bet is to just ask.

Potential Drawbacks

Here are a few of the cons of money orders:

•   Fees. While you can pay bills with money orders, the small fees can add up if you’re relying on them for that purpose.

Check cashing stores may charge a flat fee of $2.99 per money order, while some might charge around 4% to 5% to cash a money order. Many banks usually will do it for free. Also note that there are banks that will deposit a portion of the order and then after a couple of days release the rest.

•   Payment limits. Usually $1,000 is the ceiling for most money orders.

•   Inconvenience. The fact that many banks require your presence to process a money order may make putting money orders you receive into use less convenient.

The cap on a money order’s value also means there’s a time investment if, say, you need to pay $2,000 to someone — that’s two money orders, two fees, and twice as much time spent getting them issued.

In addition, not all businesses may accept money orders. If you are trying to use one to pay a bill, check with the payee first. Every now and then, you may encounter someone who accepts only, say, online bill paying.

•   Use in scams. A big strike against money orders overall — and this is why banks can be somewhat cautious in accepting them — is that they can be used in banking scams. Money orders are perceived as a safe way to receive payments, and that is true when they are legitimate.

But the news can share stories about counterfeit money orders that revolve around suspicious prizes, employment opportunities, classified ads, and so on. Because money orders are not checks, it can make them harder to trace. It’s a good idea to keep your receipt for a money order until you are sure the order has been received and cashed.

Alternatives to Money Orders

Sometimes vendors or recipients aren’t able to accept a check, and a money order might make sense. But there are digital age options like peer-to-peer payments or P2P transfers.

P2P platforms are often a free service offered by financial institutions that lets users send and receive money, usually in minutes.

And P2P transfers are generally quick, as fast as a few seconds. Examples of services people use for P2P payments are PayPal and Venmo, as well as Zelle which moves money in a slightly different way, from bank account to bank account, but is usually mentioned in the same breath with the others.

Also, many banks now offer ways to transfer money from one bank to another as part of their services, making it easy to move money between your own accounts and to other individuals and businesses.

Recommended: Pros and Cons of Electronic Banking

The Takeaway

Money orders are a paper financial tool, which, like a check, can move funds. They have the added benefit of being able to be used even if you don’t have a bank account, and the fees involved in getting one can be quite low. However, there is typically a $1,000 cap on the amount of a money order, and it can take some time and energy to get one.

If you’re looking for a simple way to move money from your bank account to another person at any time, consider a SoFi Checking and Savings online banking account. You’ll be able to send funds to a recipient, whether or not they bank with SoFi.

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