Get Ready for the End of Cash

More often I’m finding places that do not accept good-old-fashioned cash

Cashless society

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’m a bring-my-lunch-to-work kind of guy, but when I found myself one afternoon in New York City’s awe-inspiring Grand Central Terminal, I decided to treat myself to an inexpensive, yet surely tasty, lunch.

Minutes later I stood in line, clutching fifteen dollars for a smoked turkey sandwich and raspberry lemonade from the bustling Great Northern Food Hall. The total came out to $15.65 and I was about to reach for my wallet for another dollar when I saw the clerk’s eyes dart from the register to my crumpled bills.

She smiled ruefully at my greenbacks and said, “Sorry, we don’t accept cash.”

falling money
You won't be seeing much of this in the future. Travel Links Directory

 Why No Cash

I fumbled with my bills for a second and then quickly recovered. “No problem,” I said as I deftly pulled out a credit card. In hindsight, I should’ve used Apple Pay and my Apple Card (money back!) on either my Apple Watch or iPhone, but, as I said, I was knocked a bit off balance.

The decision to forgo cash transactions in one of New York’s City’s busiest commuter hubs and tourist destinations is surprising, but digital transactions are cleaner and faster. I don’t know if they’re more secure than physical money. When I hand someone $10 and they give me change, that is literally the end of our interaction. Digital transactions are more like opening a door that never fully shuts. Money from credit cards come with identifying information and there’s a persistent record of the transaction with the bank.

Even so, there’s a growing list of reasons why cash and coin are no longer king (or needed):

  • Credit cards
  • Virtual Credit Cards
  • Online shopping (you never have to visit a physical vendor)
  • No more pay phones
  • Phones and watches ready to pay
  • Venmo and other mobile payment, digital cash transfer systems

We’ve become so cash averse that even when something cash-adjacent, like a physical check, arrives, we quickly whisk it into the digital corpus by scanning it on our phones. We do it fast enough to avoid being reminded that cash is paper, too.

Apple Pay
Perhaps you've heard of Apple Pay, which was introduced 5 years ago. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Bye Bye Monies

What I’m noticing anecdotally, though, is backed by years of research that points to Americans steadily walking away from physical money.

Half the respondents in a 2015 PEW Research study said they carry cash less than half the time they’re out of the house. Millennials appear to rely almost exclusively on pay apps (Venmo, Apple Cash, Square Cash) for their transactions.

Pay Phone
Remember these things?. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Stop a young person (18-24) on the street and ask them if they have a dollar and they might laugh in your face. Transactions, such as they are, between young people are even more fascinating. It’s like witnessing telepathy. The cash-needy person looks forlornly at the flush pal who says without prompting, "I'll Venmo you $20." It usually happens so fast that even the dozens of surveillance cameras currently trained on us could not detect it. Digital money flows like quicksilver. Real money? Like cold sap down a knotty tree.

Cash Me Outside

That said, I still have cash in my wallet and feel lost without it. This is true even though I, as I mentioned earlier, have a watch and phone fully capable of paying many of my bills.

Digital money flows like quicksilver. Real money? Like cold sap down a knotty tree.

Perhaps it’s because there’s still so much real money floating around out there. According to a Titlemax report, there are almost 12 billion bills in circulation.

The U.S. Mint prints tens of millions more each year, but between 70% and 95% of them are just replacements for retiring bank notes.

There are also a lot of places where cash is still king:

  • Street fairs
  • Street food—sometimes. Square and other phone-based mobile payment systems are taking over
  • Gas stations where you want to save 10 cents a gallon
  • Service workers like cleaning people and gardeners
  • Restaurant tips (so many only want cash)

In addition, I still run into many businesses, even some new ones, that prefer cash, apparently not interested in dealing with digital payment systems (and their costs) of any kind.

When I ran an anecdotal Twitter poll on the topic, 57% said they still carry cash. However, I suspect they do so as a precaution. On the other hand, the fact that 43% are walking around without a physical dime on them is a significant economic and cultural shift.

So What

I don’t think the pendulum is ever going to swing back in favor of physical money. Digital transactions are too easy, whether on your credit card or the smart watch you happen to be wearing. The systems are only getting more convenient and secure. Money is still easy to lose and takes up valuable pocket space. We have thousands of dollars on our 5-gram credit cards where the only limit to what we can carry is our credit line.

Digital natives who probably got their first tooth fairy $25 as a Venmo will have no recollection of carrying cash and will see physical bills as a financial relic of a bygone era. They’ll laugh over the wads of bills in crime films and TV shows and wonder if their parents can explain the concept of a money clip.

If I were you, I’d start packing fewer bills every day and get more comfortable paying with your watch and Venmo-ing your friends. 

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