Freezing out plastic. The journey to living cash only

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cashMy son was embarrassed. The cashier was obviously annoyed. And the woman in line behind me was notably irritated. And, all I'd said was one little four-letter word: CASH.

"Debit or credit?" the cashier asked.

"Cash," I unwittingly replied.

"Cash?" she asked, incredulous. "Really?"

She needed to call a manager to get change for the $20 bill I produced from my wallet to pay for a gallon of milk because, "no one uses cash so we don't have that much change." With the flashing beacon at aisle 7 indicating there was a problem I, along with the growing number of annoyed shoppers behind me, waited for the front-end manager to appear with my change.

As I dug for quarters in my purse in the hopes of speeding the transaction along, I couldn't help but wonder, where has all the cash gone?

We all love our plastic. Debit cards linked directly to personal bank accounts have sent cash into the abyss that swallowed cassette tapes and legwarmers. Now, we (and by "we" I most certainly mean me) just whip out a card to pay -- via electronic funds transfer -- for coffee at the drive thru, to pick up lunch or to splurge on a new pair of jeans.

The clerk's reaction to my $20 bill made me wonder why I don't use cash more often? Is it possible that I've become overly dependent on plastic? Or, even worse -- addicted to plastic?

In my pre-child, pre-dogs, pre-suburbia life, I would have never been caught without cash in my wallet. Needing it to pay a cabbie or buy a Chicago dog from a street vendor, cash and I remained allies. I depended on cash to pick up a newspaper for the train ride to work and to occasionally give to the homeless man who stood outside the building I worked in. I used cash for my morning coffee and bagel and to pay tolls or parking lot attendants.

But today, it appears cash has no place in my world. I never seem to have cash in my wallet. In fact, I've written a check to pay for a box or two of Girl Scout cookies because I couldn't scrounge up enough cash. I use my debit card for just about everything. And during the course of a typical week, I happily hand over my debit card not only to pay for a cup of coffee, or co-pay at the doctor's, but for dry-cleaning, groceries and to stop for a quick bite while running errands.

So, I packed away my plastic, tucked the checkbook in a drawer, and set out on a two week cash-only experiment to find the answers.

And I would do so during the last two weeks of 2009.

A simpler life
Living cash-only meant that, for at least a few weeks, I might not find myself with less than a dollar in my purse when I spotted that "oh so perfect Christmas gift". But early into my test, it became apparent cash is easier to track than plastic.

There's no wondering if you're close to your credit limit or if checking account balance is low. Each day I knew exactly how much money I was starting with and how much I was spending. I could see my stack of dead presidents dwindle after a day filled with errands and knew I hit my personal pre-set spending limit when I was out of cash.

When I plunked down money for presents or groceries, I realized how much simpler paying with cash is. Cash doesn't require credit checks, monthly statements or authorization codes. No photo ID is required to use it. And if you do lose it, while you're sure to have heartache, no one will steal your identity. Hmmm, maybe a love affair with cash was developing.

But also limiting
I suspected that leaving home without my debit card would save me money and, much to the delight of my husband, force me to stick to my budget. Shopping plastic-free meant fewer surprise entries and ATM service charges showed up in our checking account register.

But living on a completely cash-only basis isn't always handy, and sadly, my love affair fizzled. In fact, with my plastic tucked safely away, I realized that even though cash may be simpler, it can also be restricting.

This was glaringly apparent when I stopped at the gas station. Instead of waving my key chain card in front of a card reader, I had to go into the station and guess how much gas I should pre-pay for. I wasn't even sure how many gallons would fit in my tank.

"What if I guess wrong and over pay?" I asked the cashier.

He looked at me quizzically. "Um, I don't know, Ma'am. Uh, most people just pay at the pump."

I thought "Oh, why did I decide to do this?"

I estimated $20.00 would fill up my Suzuki SX4's tank. When the pump stopped and the needle on my gas gauge hovered at three quarters full, it was obvious I'd underestimated how far my money would stretch. Looking at my gas gauge, I cursed cash under my breath. If I used plastic, my tank would be full.

Plastic-free shopping doesn't satisfy an empty stomach. Instead of being able to toss a few snacks for the ride home into my cart, I had to remain focused on my shopping list. Shopping with a pre-set amount of cash didn't leave room for impulse snack foods. And the fear that I didn't bring enough cash to pay for the items in my cart was distracting. Not being able to pick up items that weren't on my list (because I might not have cash to cover them) felt confining. Especially since I had the money in my account -- just not in my wallet.

Spontaneous lunches, movies and stops at the dry cleaner were harder to coordinate without relying on a debit or credit card to pay. Taking my son to the movies, an outing that would normally start by ordering tickets on-line with my debit card, required leaving 15 minutes earlier to make an extra stop at the bank to cash a check because I had spent what I thought I'd need for an entire week. And it was only Wednesday! Luckily, the bank was open since we were going to a matinee.

A change of heart
Toward the end of my experiment, I developed a sense of pride for my cash spending. It was empowering to physically pay for purchases with our hard-earned money instead of sliding a thin piece of plastic through a computerized magnetic strip reader. True, having money transferred from our checking account via electronic funds was still paying for my groceries. But handing over cash made paying seem more real.

I realized a life without plastic worked for decades. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents relied heavily on cashing their paychecks, allotting their money and living within that budget. They had financial discipline.

Years of wielding my debit/credit card had made me soft. I wasn't nearly as fiscally responsible as I thought I was. I'm not a compulsive shopper, but I do enjoy an occasional spontaneous lunch out or ordering Chinese take-out. Sure, our bills are paid on time and we're saving for retirement, yet I really didn't know how many times I swiped my debit/credit card in an average day, week or month.

I learned there really isn't one universal "best" method of payment. Cash and credit may be interchangeable, but they're also individual. For me, the best method of payment isn't always cash. But, it's also no longer all plastic all the time.

Although occasionally my plastic feels a bit neglected, it now has a few former presidents for company in my wallet. And when I shop, I stop to think about whether to retrieve that thin piece of plastic or a few pieces of paper from my wallet.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a regular contributor to WalletPop. When she's not freezing out her plastic, she's writing about health, celebrity and consumer issues.
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