The Village Idiot: Paper or plastic?


After a string of cash-register robberies, the Crown and Anchor, a pub in south London, decided to stop taking cash altogether. The burglaries have stopped, but now the only way to pay for a pint and a pasty at the Crown is on credit.

Since most of their customers used credit cards anyway, it wasn’t a tough decision to make. The real surprise was how simple it made other things. Counting the till at closing time? What till? Taking cash to the bank? What cash? What robberies?

The Europeans seem to be way ahead of us on the cash-free train. This year, England had 4,700 fewer ATMs than the year before. It seems no one needs to use cash as often as they used to. Swedish home-furnishings giant IKEA went cashless at one store, after learning that only 1.2 percent of their sales there were in cash. The few people it did inconvenience were offered free lunch in the store as compensation, but IKEA still wouldn’t take their inconvenient paper money.

Amazon, the biggest store in the world, never wasted its time taking cash. It is now experimenting with Amazon Go stores where you show a card to get in, shop and walk out — no self-serve cash registers, no clerks, no annoying “Can I help you?” The latest version of this experiment (in Seattle, for Amazon employees only) is the size of an airport kiosk and is geared for the grab-and-go lunch crowd. It’s the kind of shop you’d find in the lobby of any modern skyscraper or airport, full of sodas, salads and sides.

Sometimes the idea of no cash is very scary — what if my credit is no good? How will I buy things? But it’s a false choice. If no one will give me credit, who on Earth would give me cash? Besides, when I’m tapping my foot behind someone writing a check, or waiting for them to dig out exact change, I long for the day when the Gas and Go Away won’t take anyone’s cash or checks.

Every time an ATM charges me $3.95 for my own money, I wonder why I don’t use my credit card more often. I’m being scammed by my own bank! Thanks, guys! If I went to a teller at the bank and cashed a check, it would be a free transaction. The tellers get paid, and I hope they get benefits; that’s the transaction that should cost money, not the one at the ATM. The machine isn’t going to get a pension or need health insurance or join a union, so why is it so expensive? The profit, silly.

But really, what do you need cash for? It’s a burden. Literally. Who doesn’t have a container somewhere in the house for loose change? Which is a pain to get rid of — it has to be wrapped for the bank to accept it, or dumped in the automatic machine at the grocery store, which takes 10 percent of your money just for counting it.

Another thing that’s lessening the need for cash is Square, a little device that lets even the smallest shop accept credit card payments. Even vendors at flea markets and trade shows can attach a card reader to their smartphones and accept cards now. It will even calculate a tip for you.

If you’re one of those people who still like to pay with cash, don’t worry — it won’t go away. But you may find you pay a price for using cash. Cash doesn’t give you “2 percent cash back” on your purchases, the way some credit cards do. Well, the cards aren’t giving anyone “cash” back, they give them credit, but the larger question is: How can credit card companies do that? It’s because they make so much money on the interest from people who don’t pay off their cards each month that they can afford to give you, the noncash consumer, some of their spare change.

Worse things could happen.

Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected].

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