I decided to try something different over the weekend, uttering five words that have gotten me into trouble before: How hard could this be?
I planned to keep my plastic bank cards in my wallet and pay for every one of life’s routine expenses the old-fashioned way — with cash. The idea was to opt out of the digital economy, at least briefly.
Why? I reached a kind of personal tipping point last week, oddly pushed by an event that had no real impact on me. The bankrupt Mt. Gox, the world’s largest broker of bitcoin, admitted hackers had stolen digital currency worth more than a billion dollars. Poof.
This followed a parade of news stories about huge data thefts affecting big retailers and customers who paid with cards. The Target Corp. fiasco set a new standard.
True, I’m conflating two different things. The theft of bitcoin has little to do with the cyber swindles of bank card data from retailers. And customers — especially credit card holders — faced almost no financial liability in most of these cases.
But I felt a growing frustration over the vulnerability of information — and money — in digital commerce. So I just put the cards away.
My experiment started Saturday with a visit to the bank, naturally, where I picked up $200. That was double my standard ATM withdrawal. You’re not going to get far in a cash economy without real walking-around money. Right away, I drove to the Target in Hanover with my wife for a basket full of household staples.
The bill came to $57.52, and I was pleased to see a reasonable amount of cash in the drawer when I handed over three $20s.
Then I looked across an aisle and saw a customer not just paying with plastic, but handing the cashier her phone — her phone! — perhaps to scan a coupon on the Target app. I was even more alone than I thought.
I needed gas, so next we pulled into my local Shell station. Gas stations don’t really make any money selling gas, so they long ago convinced drivers to serve themselves and pay at the pump. Nobody thinks twice about it anymore.
That’s why I had no idea what it was like inside that tiny office attached to the garage. I prepaid with another three $20s and walked into a claustrophobic space dedicated to the sale of cigarettes, lottery tickets, candy, and Red Bull. And what do you know, it had an ATM, too. Anyone who goes into that room knows something about the cash economy.
It was midafternoon, so we drove to Panera for something quick to eat. At the register, Mike didn’t bat an eye when I pulled out cash. One good sign: A charity change box benefitting Boston Children’s Hospital on the counter had plenty of coins inside. I paid the $24.11 tab and gave the change to Children’s.
We took a table with a good view of the registers and watched for 15 minutes as a large majority of customers paid in — yes — cash. Men, women, younger, older. I can’t explain it, but Panera is a fast-casual magnet for hungry people with money in their pockets.
The supermarket was next, and our bill came to $67.74. I looked across all the busy checkout lines and saw only one person, a guy in a New England Patriots jacket, paying with cash. I pulled out four more $20s and asked Dan, my cashier, if other people ever gave him real money. “Sometimes,” he said. I think Dan was being polite.
My big problem: I was broke by then. That never happened when I paid with plastic.
But I still wanted to see a movie and buy Chinese takeout for dinner. I also planned to visit the Apple store and pick up a $75 device my wife had ordered online. I wanted to meet one of those guys in the blue shirts, with the iPod Touch modified to swipe cards and e-mail receipts, just to see what would happened when I stuffed a wad of twenties in his hand.
So I went back to the ATM for more money and, yes, it hurt. It turned out we had prepaid for the device and I left the Apple store disappointed. But the money still burned a hole in my pocket.
My lesson after one long day: I don’t know how much longer I can afford to pay in cash.