The Cashless Society

How Hard Is It To Get by Without Cash?

It’s been 44 days—and counting—since I’ve touched a dollar bill.

Where's the credit card-taking vending machine when you need it?
Where’s the credit card-taking vending machine when you need it?

Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

On Jan. 17, I withdrew $100 from an ATM in lower Manhattan. I don’t remember precisely how I spent it. But within a week or so, those five $20 bills had floated away—mostly into the hands of bartenders and waitresses, I’m sure. Since then, I have not touched a single piece of U.S. currency.

OK, I did take a quick trip to Belize at the end of January, where I withdrew Belizean currency from an ATM in the town of San Ignacio. But it turned out I barely had any use for those Belizean dollars, except to tip tour guides. Credit cards were accepted almost everywhere I went.

And if it makes you feel better, that San Ignacio machine actually swallowed my ATM card whole. Refused to give it back. No matter—I haven’t needed it. Since my return to the United States, a full month ago, I have been living totally cashless.

At first, this was remarkably easy. I limited myself to bars and restaurants with credit card logos pasted across their front windows. New York City taxis are equipped with swipe readers, and I could tack the tip on electronically. (Same deal with my haircutter—though she sort of frowned when I added the tip to my card instead of handing her cash.) Supermarkets and department stores in my neighborhood all let me pay with cards. It seemed this whole lifestyle experiment would be a breeze. And then I hit roadblocks.

I was staying at a hotel in San Francisco. When I checked out and hailed a taxi to the airport, the hotel doorman grabbed my luggage and tossed it in the taxi’s trunk before I could stop him. I had no way to tip. So I leapt quickly into the car, shut the door, stared straight ahead, and steeped in my shame.

Back in New York, I found that as long as I was by myself I could maneuver toward card-friendly situations. But in groups I lost that measure of control. Out at night with pals, we’d occasionally wander into cash-only bars, and I’d have no way to pay when it was my round. I ended up guiltily cadging drinks off friends. If my consumption totaled more than a couple of pints, I’d promise to reimburse someone via PayPal the next day.

Once, out on a date, I suggested a cozy Italian restaurant in the West Village where we might share a nice dinner. Then, just in time, I remembered that this place only accepts cash. I called a sudden audible—stammering out a complicated, implausible excuse about how my job requires me not to touch money. I doubt this impressed her.

My worst moment came when an out-of-town friend asked me to welcome two of his pals who’d recently moved to New York. They were a young couple, and didn’t seem to have a ton of dough. So after we’d downed a few drinks and appetizers, I excused myself and surreptitiously approached the waitress—planning to take care of the whole check before the couple could offer to pay their share. “We only take cash,” said the waitress. “Why??” I asked in dismay, as though it might somehow change her answer. “That’s just our owner’s preference,” she replied (with a tone that conveyed the exact opposite of sympathy). Mortified, I returned to the table and asked these broke youngsters if they could cover my portion of the bill. They did so without a peep. But they weren’t on PayPal, and I still haven’t paid them back.

Isolated fiascos aside, the worst part of this stunt has been the everyday inconveniences. Say I’m in a hurry, and hope to buy a soda at a corner bodega to drink while I’m walking: There’s inevitably a $5 minimum to use credit cards, so I forgo the beverage. Or, say I’m at a bar, and I order a single beer for six bucks. I’m informed there’s a $10 credit card minimum, and I really don’t want a second drink, so I end up tipping 67 percent to round out the bill. (I notice some commenters on my previous entry theorized that it would be easier to live cashlessly in a big city like New York. But a colleague with parents in Ohio swears that it’s when he’s back home that he never needs bills—big, modern chain stores proliferate there, while New York is packed with mom-and-pop shops lacking credit card readers and hipster taverns evading their taxes.)

Life in the Slate office has been a mini-minefield. The vending machine here accepts coins and bills, not cards, so I force my cubicle-mate to buy me drinks and snacks throughout the day. I PayPal her each night, tacking on a buck or two for her labor. She has yet to complain, but I can’t imagine she’s super jazzed about being my gofer. Lunch is also a challenge: Slatesters often make group orders, paying the delivery guy with pooled cash, so I’ve asked my editor to front me. She downloaded the Square app, which lets her swipe my credit card, but also excises a hefty fee. When I reimbursed her electronically for a $12 lunch, only $11.43 showed up in her bank account. That’ll add up.

These minor bits of friction in my otherwise seamlessly cashless existence have only made me realize just how close we are to achieving a cashless utopia. I imagine it would be fairly painless, for instance, to legislate away cash-only bars, forcing them all to accept credit cards. The next vending machine upgrade at the Slate office will almost certainly usher in an era of cashless snacking. And once everyone has smartphones, we’ll all be able to download various apps easing instant, electronic transactions. PayPal already offers an app that lets you exchange cash by physically bumping two phones together. We’re inches away from this becoming the norm.

I will admit there’s one paradoxically nostalgic aspect of living cashlessly that I’ve enjoyed: writing checks. I’d nearly forgotten about them. I use online bill pay from my bank to take care of things like my monthly Internet and health insurance fees. Very few of my friends use checks anymore for everyday transactions, but I’m not sure why—they don’t seem particularly burdensome to the receiver. If people are hitting ATMs to withdraw cash anyway, it’s no great hardship for them to deposit checks there, too.

I now proudly carry my checkbook everywhere I go. I’ve written checks paying $30 for my chips in a casual poker game, and $20 for my share of a bar tab. Last night I wrote a check for $2 after I drunkenly bummed a friend’s last cigarette. Memo: “Cig.”

All in all, I’ve hit my cashless stride. But now it’s time to set some challenges for myself. Next week: illicit transactions. For instance, can you buy drugs without cash? (I will try it.) And what about sex? (Sorry, I will not try it. But I will doggedly seek an answer for you. Stay tuned.)