“Keep the change.”
That’s something I can say, because I’m one of those people who still carry cash. But for most Americans, especially the young ones, cash is a thing they’ve only heard about, like phone booths or dial-up internet.
They don’t know what they’re missing.
Every Friday, I take a week’s worth of cash out of the bank and use it for most face-to-face transactions: at the grocery store, at the gas station, at yard sales, for poker night (I don’t play, but if I ever get invited, I’ll be ready to ante up). My grandkids are getting to the age where I might want to slip them a dollar or two, and they don’t take plastic.
Don’t get the idea that I’m a Luddite who has failed to keep up with the notion of a cashless society; I was at the forefront. At one time, I lived by the debit card, that instrument of great power — and great danger — that allows you to spend and spend until there’s no money left for your car insurance or electric bill. (There may be more practical ways to use a debit card, but that’s the only method I was familiar with.)
Then, about a decade ago, a friend mentioned how secure it made her feel knowing there was tangible money in her wallet. I decided to give it a try.
It took a few months to settle on a good weekly amount. At first, I set my limit unreasonably low — “I don’t see why we can’t get by on $40 for groceries, as long as I buy the generic pasta” — virtually guaranteeing that I’d run out of cash before midweek. At that point, I’d go back to the debit card and my old freewheeling ways. (OK, “freewheeling” is a too negative term. Let’s go with “furtively irresponsible.”)
But once I set an amount based on a realistic average cost of groceries, gas, and a few sundries, I found that with the proper oversight — opening my wallet and checking how much money I had left — I could make it through most weeks with no trouble, often with a few bucks to spare.
Financially savvy people laugh at my quaint ways. “I put everything on the credit card,” they say. “For the miles.”
I’m not a frequent flier.
Or “to earn points. Then I get cash rewards.” Fair enough, if you’re good at playing the game.
I was not.
I commend anyone who comes out ahead on miles, money or free gas. But here’s a little secret I learned the hard way: If you carry a balance on your card, the interest charges will outweigh your rewards.
Credit card companies loved me. After all, my laziness helped pay for the rewards their more conscientious customers enjoyed.
But now, whenever possible, I stick to cash for retail. It’s simpler. And while I don’t earn any points, I like that it denies some major bank even the possibility of assessing service charges. Every time I pay with cash, I imagine a credit card company executive wincing in pain.
This makes me smile.
I don’t recommend cash for big-ticket purchases, however, if only because lugging a suitcase around is hard on the lower back. But a little cash on hand comes in handy. Without it, you can’t get into a high school sporting event or buy into a back-alley craps game.
And if you don’t have change in your pocket, what do you do when you come across a fountain? Make a wish and throw in your Visa card?
Lots of people tell me they can’t use cash; it just “flies out of their hands.” I have the opposite problem. In my mind, a debit card is like a magical wish-fulfillment talisman; as long as there’s money in the account, there are no limits to what a debit card can buy.
Cash, on the other hand, is real, finite and very hard for me to part with. Separating a $20 bill from my fingers is a job for a cashier with a soothing voice and a rock climber’s grip strength.
I know I’m resisting progress. The time will come when cash is no longer accepted as a form of currency. What doesn’t go on a debit or credit card will be handled through smartphone apps and, eventually, telepathy, although I’m not sure how fees will be assessed.
I shouldn’t fight it. I mean, in theory I agree with people who say change is good.
I just prefer the kind that jingles.