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November 20, 2013

Sorry, Cash Only: Midway Reflections

By Alicia Brindisi

Part of our series, Sorry, Cash Only

Last Friday marked the halfway mark in my experiment to only use cash for 30 days. I still have a few weeks to go but I wanted to reflect on some of the major insights I’ve gained so far.

  • Increased Anxiety and Insecurity – Going into this month, I expected to feel an increased sense of worry around personal theft. However,  I live in a relatively safe neighborhood, the cash under my proverbial mattress is decently secure, and never carry huge sums of cash on me so the threat of theft is not what has been causing anxiety. What has is the realization that dealing in cash means operating without a safety net. Having multiple payment options is not only convenient but functions as a form of personal insurance. If there is an emergency, if I do not correctly plan my financial day, if I forget cash at home, I am out of luck. (Of course, I realize that these feelings would be amplified if I also had the additional pressure of low income, which is one of the biggest distinctions between this project and the realities of the unbanked.)
     
  • Importance of Planning Ahead - I recently blogged an article on how credit cards increase spending at Sorry, Cash Only. Not having that ease means planning purchases ahead of time. Each day I think about my anticipated expenses and then put that money in my wallet plus a little extra “just in case.” I had not previously thought about maintaining a constant balance of having just enough versus too much cash but now I do this on a daily basis. While this can be stressful, it also makes me more conscious of where my money is going and so I find I am spending less. I’m still tracking all of my purchases so we’ll see if the data supports my anecdotal evidence at the end of the month. Conversely, because I do not have an electronic account that logs my purchases, budgeting is less precise and it’s more time consuming to get a big picture look at account balances.
     
  • Human interaction – One of the most interesting realizations from this experiment came while doing a very mundane task – buying my monthly subway pass. For those of you not familiar with the New York City transit system, many subway stations have both a station agent and machines selling Metrocards. If you pay in cash at the machine, you get change in Sacajawea dollars. I decided to visit the booth operator to break a large bill so that I could use the machine but avoid carrying a large amount of dollar coins. Somehow I hadn’t realized I could just buy the card from the agent himself, and it dawned on me then that paying cash facilitates human interactions. In a few months I will celebrate my tenth year of living in New York and that was the first time I made a purchase with a station agent. A regular, monthly interaction with someone in my neighborhood is an entry point for building community that I do not capitalize on. Similarly, there are many small businesses that have minimums for credit card purchases or simply deal only in cash that I’ve avoided in the past because I only carried plastic.

The MTA recently announced it will implement another round of staffing cuts, targeting booth operators. When this happens, how will it affect people who pay in cash? They may have relationships with their home station agent. Or they might just like talking to a human instead of a machine. My own experience made me realize we make different types of transactions - slower, cash-based, personalized, and possibly inconvenient vs. automated, online, fast, and impersonal. Could automated systems and decreased cash handling actually lead to unemployment? Will we see a slow cash movement (like the slow food movement) in the future? It seems like a big stretch but like cashless world theorists, it’s an interesting thought experiment.

Stay tuned for further updates as Sorry, Cash Only continues. In the meantime, follow me and send any thoughts and questions:

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