Connect Confessionals

Trading Spaces: What If You Could Only Use Cash For A Week? What If You Couldn’t Use It At All? 

Jean Chatzky and Rebecca Cohen  |  September 26, 2019

We’ve seen the projections: The U.S., headlines proclaim, is on its way to becoming a cashless society. We’ve seen the evidence — the Sweetgreen salad take-out place near our office (and a HerMoney favorite) is just one of a growing number of places that no longer take cash. But we also know that the proclivity to use cash is generational.

Jean Chatzky, age 54, routinely pulls $200 out of the ATM over the weekend and uses it to pay for a trip to the Saturday farmer’s market, and for purchases under $20 for the rest of the week. Becca Cohen, 22, rarely has any cash in her wallet. Like the 50% of Americans who now use their cards for purchases under $5, according to an analysis by the Harvard Business Review, she uses plastic (or Venmo, or other apps) for pretty much everything.

So, we decided to flip the script. For one workweek, Becca would use only cash, and Jean wouldn’t touch the stuff. We weren’t sure if we would survive, but we’re happy to report we did — although not without a few snafus. Here are the highlights.

Jean: Monday, 7 a.m.: I was up before the alarm and worrying about … my nails. For the record, this is not a usual worry for me. Hair, yes. Nails, no. When I got engaged (the first time) the jeweler remarked I was the first woman to try on rings who didn’t cringe that she needed a manicure. And yet, I am worried. Why? Because if I were to go to my local nail salon for a manicure today I could pay for the service but not leave a tip, because you aren’t allowed to tip on the credit card. There are big signs to that effect posted in the salon, and an ATM in the corner that will conveniently allow you to take out cash for a tip if you don’t have it. Still, I need a manicure. I have a shoot tomorrow, and my hands will absolutely be in the pictures. I’ll let you know how it goes.  

Becca: Monday 10 a.m.: I am often chastised by my parents and my grandmother, with whom I live, for never having cash with me. They’re sick of shelling out 5’s to me when I need to tip my manicurist or get an ice cream at the local cash-only ice cream shop. I don’t see the point in carrying around a big wallet to hold bills when I can pay for (almost) everything with my cards, which are much easier to carry in my compact silver card holder. Or better yet, with my iPhone, thanks to Apple Pay. To say the least, I am nervous for this week. 

My friends, who always procrastinate, decided today at 10 a.m. that it was time to buy train tickets to College Park, Maryland, for our college homecoming weekend in November. I have admittedly been putting off the task, too, because, well, Amtrak is expensive. But, of course, today is the day they decided we have to book our seats so the prices don’t continue to rise. “Wait. I can’t book my ticket this week. I can only use cash this week for a work project,” I responded in my iMessage group. Here’s to hoping the prices stay cheap and the seats stay open until this is over!

Jean: Monday 5:32 p.m. Oh, no! I’m feeling badly about giving you this assignment if it’s going to cost you a cheap train ticket. Can you make a reservation now and pay for it next week? (Just a suggestion.) Meanwhile, I spent most of the day home writing — i.e., not spending anything — but did get out for the aforementioned manicure a little after 4. I walked in and sheepishly lied that I only had a credit card so I’d need to tip on that. Despite the signs and policy, no one blinked. I felt bad, so I was more generous than usual.  

Becca: Monday 6:45 p.m.: I’ve been feeling under the weather, so I decided to head over to the neighborhood urgent care to see what’s up with me. Normally, this wouldn’t be a concern, as I would always charge medical expenses, no problem. But, and here’s the catch, my family just switched medical insurance, so I had no idea what my quick visit would cost. Waiting to be called, I consulted my wallet. In my sickly haze, I didn’t think to head to the ATM beforehand and was left with $26 in cash to my name. Luckily, when I was finished, I only owed $25, but as there was no ATM in the office waiting room, I am still wondering what I would have done had I not been able to pay in full. And now I REALLY have to go to the ATM!

Jean: Tuesday 7:49 a.m. I am sitting on a train I wasn’t sure I would make. Long story short: I live in a community with a van to the train. It saves money on parking except those nights — like tonight — when I’ll be coming home later than the van runs. Then, I pay $9 in the daily lot that, you guessed it, only takes cash. So, I drove to a neighboring town. The spots in the lot I’ve used before where you can swipe your card and type in the number of your space were all gone. It took a while, and I could feel my pulse starting to rise, but I found a spot on the street. The instructions told me to download the pay-to-park app on my phone and use that. Ugh. I did not need this this morning. But I did as told, signed up for the service and entered a credit card number — only to learn that this app doesn’t take American Express. So I entered another card number and paid $14.25 for 800 minutes ( I may not need that much time, but you try converting hours into minutes when you’re in a panic)… Then I bolted to the train. 

Becca: Wednesday: 11:00 a.m.: I managed to make it all of Tuesday without making any purchases, which, for me, was a huge win. I did, though, try to make a donation to a cause a friend was promoting, and didn’t realize I couldn’t do that until I was halfway done inputting my credit card information. Oops. I’ll get to it next week. 

I woke up on Wednesday still feeling under the weather and decided it was time to return to urgent care to see if my illness had progressed enough for some medication. If you remember my experience Monday night, you know I’m way out of cash. Not feeling well, I didn’t want to walk in the opposite direction to the TD Bank ATM that would allow me to take cash out free of charge. I stopped in a bodega-like candy store on the way to urgent care to take out money and was only charged a fee of $0.99, which seems like a victory since some of these machines can cost $3! This was the price I was willing to pay for convenience. When my visit ended, I was ready to hand over my $25 co-pay in the form of two 20’s, expecting $15 in change. 

“We don’t have any change,” the receptionist told me. I stopped in my tracks. How was I going to make this work? Also, how can a business allow customers to pay in cash without being able to make change? I couldn’t charge the $5 the twenty-dollar bill wouldn’t cover and wasn’t even sure billing it was allowed during my card-less week. I found 3 singles in my wallet and handed her those along with a handful of coins totaling $0.84. 

“This is what I can give you. I’m sorry,” I told her. 

“Can you charge the remainder?” she asked. 

“Nope,” I replied, not offering an explanation. 

After staring at each other, unsure how to proceed, she agreed to let me pay $23 and keep the $2 in my account as a balance to be paid the next time I came in. Phew. 

Then I was off to CVS to pick up my prescriptions. Again, with the new medical insurance, I had no clue what this would cost me and was fearful it would total something like $100. After a long wait, my steroid and antibiotic together cost only $16.99, another win for this morning. Finally, I headed to the market to pick up my sick-day essentials: instant oatmeal and Kraft Mac & Cheese, plus a few other things I knew we needed at home. I definitely dodged a bullet at urgent care, thinking I was going to have to break my pact to use cash only on day 3. The card-less week soldiers on!

Jean: Wednesday 11:30 a.m.  I think I cheated — if writing a check is cheating. My housekeeper was coming today and I dashed off a check to her before rushing into the car to get to my meetings in the city. I have to admit, I didn’t even think about it, in my mind a check and cash are not the same thing. My colleagues at HerMoney didn’t see it the same way. “Yup, you cheated,” said our Editor-in-Chief Kathryn Tuggle. So I grabbed the phone and called my house to ask my husband to see if we could pay her by Venmo instead. She’d never heard of it.  Or Zelle. I guess if this were a sporting event, I’d be disqualified.  

Jean: Wednesday 4 p.m. I have television tomorrow so I’m getting a blow out and not looking forward to another tipping debacle. At Glam & Go, there’s a sign on the desk that says our stylists only accept tips in cash or by Venmo. I friend my stylist, Alexa, while I’m sitting in the chair, drop $10 bucks into her account and breathe a sigh of relief.

Becca: Thursday 5:00 p.m.: I decided to get a manicure today, and, lucky for me, this was easier for me than it was for Jean. I was able to pay and tip in cash no problem, even though the place I go to get my nails done is one of the few you can find that allows you to tip with a credit card. 

Becca: Friday 10 a.m.: My boyfriend and I wanted to go see “Hustlers” tonight. The movie theater next to his apartment is brand-new and has those reservable recliner seats, so I suggested we buy tickets in advance to ensure we get good seats for a popular movie on a Friday night. “Can you get them?” he texted me. “Nope…” Frustrated with the fact that he was busy and I couldn’t do this right now, he decided to postpone the ticket buying until tonight so we have the option to change our minds. 

The Wrap-Up

All in all, we agreed the week was less of a true pain, and more just a few minor hassles. The world clearly isn’t ready to force anyone into one way of paying or another.  

Becca’s Big Takeaways: I realized that having cash on me is actually super important. It felt good not to rack up my credit card balance, and the inability to online shop was a definite struggle — even though it was definitely better for the bank! I think I could totally live a more cash-friendly life, and am now feeling more inclined to always have a few bills on me. Having to pay with cash made me consider my spending habits a little more, because the tangible act of handing over real physical money made me think more critically about the purchase than just swiping. I think I spent a little less than I might have in a normal week (see: online shopping addiction) but not enough for me to switch to a cash-only life. I want to continue to consider my purchases more deeply, whether in cash or on my card. But on a night out, it’s still just me and my card tucked into my phone case. Who wants to lug around a wallet?! 

Jean’s Big Takeaways:  Although I routinely nag my kids to make sure they have at least a $20 on them “just in case,” I have to say I came away from this experiment wondering if it’s still really necessary. Most all retailers take credit cards, and these days it seems everyone (except maybe my housekeeper) has Venmo. Even still, I have to say that at the end of the week, I found myself relieved the experiment was over — and a little embarrassed at how high maintenance I’ve become. I like having cash, and it was perfect timing to be relieved of credit card duty, since the cash-only farmer’s market with some of the best produce of the year was just opening back up.

by Jean Chatzky and Rebecca Cohen

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