We examined the spontaneous use and benefits of external memory aids in older (aged 60–85 years) and younger (aged 17–31 years) adults. In Study 1, participants were or were not given the opportunity to use a memory aid in a phone message recall task. In Study 2, a memory aid was available for one of two similar tasks. Participants' spontaneous use of external memory aids was measured. On the Memory Compensation Questionnaire, older adults reported using external memory aids more frequently but were no more likely than younger adults to take notes on the messages. Older adults benefitted from the availability of notes in both studies; younger adults benefitted when the memory task was more challenging. The results illustrate the value of external memory aids and suggest that older adults may underutilize them. The findings also raise questions about the relation between self-reported and actual use of strategies in everyday life. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.