Getting rid of cash could have some pretty weird effects on our bodies

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Harvard economist Ken Rogoff has a long list of reasons he's anti-cash. He says many countries should get rid of most paper money in favor of electronic payments.

But one possible benefit he does not spend a lot of time discussing is our health.

As Rogoff argues in his new book, "The Curse of Cash," large notes like fifties and hundreds are used primarily for tax evasion and crime. They don't help most people buy groceries or clothes, purchases increasingly made with plastic or by electronic means.

"What's going to happen is someday cash gets used less and less in the legal economy," Rogoff tells Business Insider. "It's already the case, and that's just going to continue."

But if we did ditch cold, hard cash in favor of electronic money, there is some evidence that it could have significant effects on our physical and emotional well-being.

How our bodies could react to going cashless

It's a misnomer to call cash "paper currency," at least in the US. Bills are made up of 75% cotton and 25% linen. This makes American cash extremely absorbent to the many kinds of bacteria we encounter every day, says Chris Mason, a microbiologist at Cornell University.

"The paper is like a little sponge wandering around," Mason tells Business Insider, "and can serve as a bit of an echo of the bacteria and the people which it has encountered over time."

According to the Dirty Money Project, a 2014 research project led by NYU biologist Jane Carlton, each bill contains about 3,000 types of bacteria. Some of the bacteria are harmless, but others can spread the DNA from drug-resistant microbes and spread pathogens that cause skin infections and stomach ulcers.

If we got rid of cash, many of those microbes could relocate to other surfaces or disappear entirely, for better or worse.

Mason says there is no hard data on diseases springing from cash-based bacteria, but people might become more vulnerable depending on how their particular cocktail of bacteria — their "microbiome" — changes.

The environment and our diets already affect that cocktail. Mason says going cashless would reduce how often people interact with one another's microbiomes, potentially making us healthier if their bills carried pathogens.

Even today, countries around the world use various types of money. Some, like in Australia, are polymer plastic, which Mason says features a different microbiome than paper or linen.

On the other hand, the hygiene hypothesis says people could get healthier if they came into contact with diverse microbiomes. With more experiences fighting foreign bacteria, our bodies build defenses.

If we got rid of cash, we could miss out on that benefit and might face a larger risk of infection.

Reducing the cash in society could also make many feel better physically, Mason says, particularly as men tend to sit on their cash-stuffed wallets and put themselves at risk of spinal and lower back problems.

In that case, Mason says, "the physiological and posture changes might be more significant than the microbiome changes."

10 purchases you shouldn't make with a credit card
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10 purchases you shouldn't make with a credit card

#1: Household bills

If you are already cutting it close for the month, you may be tempted to use plastic to pay the utility, cellphone or cable bill. But if you’re not paying off your full balance each month, the interest you will be charged makes those monthly bills even more expensive.

Photo credit: Getty

#2: Cars 

Car dealers often don’t allow credit card purchases, or may limit the amount of the purchase price you can put on your card. Dealers don’t like credit card payments because they have to pay the 1 to 3 percent fee the card company charges to process the transaction.

You could exercise the cash-advance option. But you’ll pay a fee and a higher interest rate. Also, you won’t get a grace period on the interest — it will begin to accumulate right away.

Instead of using a card, go to a credit union or bank to get financing approved at a reasonable interest rate before shopping for a car.

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#3: Student loans

If you can’t afford to pay your federal student loans, you have options. They include an income-based repayment plan, deferment, forbearance and possibly loan forgiveness. Take a look at “How to Get Free Help With Your Student Loans” to learn more.

Paying your student loan debt with a credit card increases the amount of interest you’re paying on the debt. Even if you have a zero-percent introductory credit card offer, it will expire in time.

And while the federal government will accept a credit card payment for loans in default, many student loan servicers won’t allow this form of payment.

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#4: Retail therapy

Think a new purchase will cheer you up? Perhaps. But remember that cash is king if you choose this mode of “therapy.” Use cash, and you won’t let your credit card balance spiral out of control.

Photo credit: Getty

#5: Medical bills

If you use a medical credit card available through your health care provider’s office to pay bills, be careful to read the fine print about your obligations.

Also consider steps you can take to reduce health care costs. See “10 Ways to Fight High Medical Bills.”

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#6: A night on the town

Handing your credit card to an unscrupulous waitperson equipped with a skimming device isn’t your only worry. If you’re out on the town throwing back drinks, it’s easy to run up a tab you can’t afford.

So when painting the town, it’s best to pay with cash.

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#7: Big-ticket items you can’t pay off immediately

Credit cards offer great purchase protections and should be used for many big-ticket purchases. But buying something on credit when you can’t afford to pay it off right away isn’t smart.

Photo credit: Getty

#8: Credit card payments

You can’t charge your monthly credit card payment on another credit card. But perhaps you’ve been tempted to use a cash advance from a credit card to bolster your checking account so that you can pay other bills.

We’ve already explained the folly of cash advances. Your credit card is not an ATM and should not be used as one.

There are real benefits, however, to transferring high-interest credit card debt to a new card with a generous zero-percent balance transfer offer. Just be aware of the balance-transfer fee and find out how long the offer lasts.

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#9: ‘Sale’ items

Convinced that you might miss out on savings if you don’t purchase a specific item on sale right away? That’s one of the warning signs of an impulse buy.

Wait a day and think about whether you really need the item. Nine times out of 10, the answer will be “no.”

You aren’t saving money by spending it for something you don’t need.

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#10: Unsecured online purchases

When shopping online, make sure the web address has “https” at the beginning. If it doesn’t, that’s your cue to take your online shopping elsewhere.

In fact, do your homework before purchasing anything online to make sure a company is reputable and not the source of many consumer complaints.

Which purchases do you refrain from making with your credit card? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Photo credit: Getty


Psychological effects of not using cash

Some of the most profound changes could happen in our brain, in how we think and feel about the money we spend daily.

Consider the research that says the sting of losing money is a lot stronger than the happiness of gaining that same amount (and sometimes more). Behavioral economists call this "loss aversion." If someone gives you $5, you'll feel good. But you could feel a lot more pain if you dropped that $5 bill on the street.

When we use cash, we see the money disappear. When we use cards, we don't, which leads us to spend more than if we had used cash.

In a cashless future, that might feel good in the short term, since you no longer feel bad about seeing your money disappear. But it might hurt even more in the long term, once you finally check your bank account after ignoring it for a while and see a huge hit.

Mason says the immune-related benefits might end up being more psychological, too.

In Sweden, where only 2% of transactions are completed with cash, Swedes already extol the benefits of leaving paper currency behind. As Nathan Heller reported for The New Yorker, bankers tend to express more confidence that they're leading healthier lives sans cash, even if Mason says the data isn't there.

The data might not even matter in the end if the placebo effect is strong enough.

"Some people might just feel better and feel cleaner," Mason says, "and then have less cortisol so they have less stress and then they'll be more healthy."

Additional reporting by Dan Bobkoff.

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