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November 6, 2013

Sorry, Cash Only

By Alicia Brindisi

Part of our series, Sorry, Cash Only

In the grand tradition of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, I’ve decided to do a 30 day experiment. I’m putting away the plastic, denying my debit card, and avoiding the ATM. I’m going unbanked for a month.

In work at FAI, I am constantly reading research on increasing financial inclusion. Recently, I read The Fletcher School’s Cost of Cash report that said it is more expensive for low-income, unbanked populations to use cash but paradoxically, they rely on cash the most! This (and many other influences including Lisa Servon’s recent investigative work on cash checking services) got me thinking. What would my life be like if I couldn’t use any of my banking services? What is it like to operate purely in cash, especially in a hyper-connected, fast-paced city like New York? I hope to gain some insight into those questions and others over the next month.

I recognize that I am not and never will be truly unbanked. I do not want this project to be an exercise in poverty tourism. My lifestyle will change for a bit, surely, but I am doing this by choice.  If there were ever a real emergency, my bank accounts would be there waiting for me. But as a researcher in international development,   I always keep one question in the back of my mind– what is the lived experience of poverty?  It’s one thing to read that using cash creates additional time burdens but it’s another to have your own personal time and schedule affected by not having access to services that seem ubiquitous.  I am doing this to get behind the numbers and figures in discussions of financial inclusion and inject more social context and experiential understanding.

I love that Lisa worked as a cashier at RiteCheck in the Bronx because she moved herself to the field. She was there in an academic capacity but still discovered new insights into the lives of the low-income individuals because she was willing to be an observer on the ground, not in an office reviewing survey data. My goal is similar – I want to read future publications or present at conferences with an expanded understanding of what financial exclusion feels like, even if it is a VERY abbreviated glimpse.

So here is how it will work…

The Rules

  • 30 days – no checks, no credit, no banks
  • I will use cash for any and all transactions
  • After the 30 days, I will introduce other non-bank financial services (prepaid debit cards, wire transfers, etc.) for two subsequent weeks
  • I will document my spending and any associated fees or time burdens
  • I will maintain this blog as well as other social media accounts to document the experience

The Fine Print

Apparently it’s not as easy as I thought to go completely off the financial grid! NYU won’t let me discontinue direct deposits and apparently check cashing locations only cash specific types of checks (i.e. not bank or personal checks).  I will write more on this later but in the interest of full disclosure:  after a series of false starts, I had to make a withdrawal from my bank account in order to have cash on hand, which is the equivalent of my monthly salary. Also, I have one expense that automatically gets charged to my credit card and the vendor won’t allow me to pay in cash. So instead I’ll set aside the same amount in cash to simulate “paying” this bill.

Please follow my progress and send your thoughts and questions to me here:

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