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In Defence of Cold, Hard Cash

In Defence of Cold, Hard Cash

  • Current Affairs
  • Opinion

There is a part in basically every American TV drama where the protagonist, in a flourish of nonchalant elegance, thumbs through a stack of cash to pay for the double shot of Scotch he has just knocked back. It’s always just a single dollar bill that he tosses on the counter, making you wonder how much that drink actually cost.

Regardless, it’s a display of effortless cool, one that doesn’t involve a helpless, awkwardly smiling server stammering apologies while trying to connect the credit card machine to the restaurant’s wi-fi.

If it was just this clumsy tango with unreliable internet connections that contactless payment platforms like China’s WeChat Pay and Alipay are trying to make a daily reality, I would be less annoyed.

But the problem is, contactless payments take credit cards to the next level, erasing the extra step of swiping and signing to make it ever more effortless to part with our money. And they don’t always cancel out the inefficiency that card payments can end up getting dragged into either.

Sure, payWave enthusiasts frequently mourn the continued existence of customers in snaking grocery lines for digging through their wallets for exact change. “Why can’t these people just tap and move on?” they ask. If only everyone would join the revolution to exterminate the use of cash.

To this, every server in every restaurant ever will surely say, “HELL NO.”

Because we’ve all been there. The bill comes, and no one has cash. We’re all familiar with the disgraceful mockery of having to collect on a friend’s share of the bill—we hate having to remind each other, and hate even more having to fork it up a week (or more) after having eaten and digested said meal—so we insist on splitting over five credit cards.

Often, of course, there are fewer cards involved. But let’s face it, even just two or three is too many. There is literally no instance in which every single person involved in a drawn out, tiresome multi-card transaction over an $80 meal comes out feeling like technology is fucking incredible.

I want to continue using cash because I like the touch of solid money.

There are people who, in testament to their personal philosophies of how cards are always better, insist on never carrying cash. Oddly, these are the same people who are never the first to offer up their cards to “pay first” at any meal.

I, on the other hand, always make sure I have cash when I know there’s going to be more than 2 diners. When the bill comes, all I do is count it out, lay it on the table, and sit back as the agonising chaos of calculating portions unfolds. In these situations, you can always tell who the ones who’ve already eviscerated their budgets for the month are.

Cash is not only the sensible, human thing to do. Cash is a very tangible, timely reminder of how responsibly or recklessly we should be living our lives.

Until I made it a habit to withdraw my monthly expenditure in cash, I could never take budgeting seriously. That first month, as I watched my stack of notes shrivel dramatically over the initial two weeks, I was horrified at my own madcap, devil-may-care impulsiveness with money. It’s one thing to watch your bank balance drop, and quite something else to experience going from twenty-four $50 notes to just four in a matter of days.

By insisting on ePayment systems and a card-only world of financial transactions, what we’re really doing is allowing the capitalist system to exploit our need for spontaneous gratification.

For large amounts of money, cards make sense. Under various specific, controlled circumstances, a case can be made for them as well. But what’s compelling is that whenever we pay with cash, it’s always with the immediate sense that “I can afford this.” When we pay via card, that turns into “I hope I don’t regret this.”

Handing out your credit card is always a gesture of dismissal—of diligence, general millennial anxiety; any indication that might alert your companions to the truly dismal state of your finances. Any hesitation can be seen as a flagrant admission that you’re not making enough money, that you don’t have your shit together.

I want to continue using cash because I like the touch of solid money. I like being able to see with my own eyes the reason (amongst others) for which I drag myself to work. I like how I can get a direct, immediate sense of the state of my finances. I don’t want to become a victim of gradual accumulation that suddenly transforms into unsustainable debt—a defining feature in the lives of countless young adults today.

With cash, I know that I am refusing to participate in the global conspiracy to reduce the time I spend thinking about whether I should be splurging. I want to be able to look into my nearly empty wallet and think, “I don’t have enough,” and actually mean it.

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Julian Wong Managing editor