Saturday, July 09, 2016

No Cash On Hand

I was working late on a project in the city and needed a drink. Not an alcoholic one (though that might have helped as well) but a cold one to satisfy my thirst. I walked across the street and into the ubiquitous drug store to get a bottle of iced tea. While I usually use a credit card for purchases, maybe because this was for less than two bucks, I reached into my pants to pull out some cash. And that's when I noticed the twenty-dollar bill with the two red marks on it.

It wasn't the marks themselves; they meant nothing to me. And it wasn't the bill, either; that was your standard issue US currency. What caught my attention was that I had noticed that bill with its red marks when it first came out of the ATM. Again, nothing remarkable about that transaction either; I had realized I was low on cash, and stopped by the bank one night on my way home. What was curious was that I had made that withdrawal six months prior. In another words, I had gone half a year without using the twenty dollar bill in my pocket.

Depending on the chapter of your life, the term "financial security" can mean different things. It might mean a having good job with a steady paycheck. It might mean having a retirement fund for that magical milestone. Or it might mean having a nest egg to be used "just in case" for when the boiler leaks or the car breaks down. More likely it probably means all three, plus a few other buckets not even mentioned.

All those ring true to me as well. But personally it always meant one more thing, and that was having a few actual dollars in my pocket. In the beginning, long before I qualified for a credit card, it was the only way to buy anything, whether it was candy at the store on the edge of town, or the latest edition of MAD magazine. The sum wasn't much, and it was just as likely to be in coin as in folding money. But from that time, when the only cards I had in my wallet had baseball players on them, I quickly got to the point where I wasn't comfortable leaving the house without having some amount of legal tender in my pocket.

Over time the sum grew. Five bucks would last me several weeks when I was in elementary school, when penny candy really cost me a penny. Later, I would stretch it out to ten or twenty before I had to replenish my supply. And once I hit adulthood, I was a regular visitor to the bank teller, each week starting out with $50 or more to cover the various miscellaneous items one has to pay for each and every day. (That's when you learn that 2 slices and a Coke is great for your wallet if not your cholesterol.)

Once I started carrying credit cards, the equation shifted. I wasn't spending more (well maybe a little) but I was spending it differently. At first it was only for larger purchases; I would never think about pulling out plastic if the total sale was under $20. In fact, merchants had limits as to how small a purchase could be where they would even take a card.

Now I find myself whipping out a card regardless of the damages. These days I think nothing of buying a box of mints with my American Express, a payment method I previously associated only with airplane tickets and hotel stays. The economic equation where anyone makes any money when you invoke an entire financial ecosystem to buy a box of Tic Tacs for $.79 on credit makes your head hurt.

But that's how we do things today. And so I walk around with the same $20 bill in my pocket for months on end. Pretty soon I literally won't have any cash on hand. Willie Sutton famously said he robbed banks because that's where the money was. These days it's never been more true. But we might be getting to a point where, at least when we're talking cold hard cash, they don't bother having it at all. After all, if we ain't using it, maybe they don't need to keep it either.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a nice money clip he hardly ever uses. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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