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No, We Don't Take Cash

Frank Ahrens

Have you seen the new Visa check card commercial that shows lunchtime in the fast-moving deli?

If you haven't, take a look at it here.

A clockwork-operation comes to a crashing halt when some schlub pays for his lunch with actual cash -- horrors! -- instead of a Visa check card.

Now, more than most, I'd say, I like to move quickly through checkout lines. A checkout line at a lunch place or a convenience store is not a place for unspooling your personal narrative, not a place to pay with change, not a place to try to return a half-eaten muffin, not a place to -- mid-checkout -- realize you forgot milk, walk to the cooler, get milk and come back to the same place in line, and it's not a place to hold everyone up while you play King of Commerce.

In fact, my friend Hank and I once came up with the idea of a Simple Person Card. It's for people who have enough money to pay for what they want, know exactly what they want and have it in their hands, most certainly are not buying lottery tickets and do not seek to form a meaningful relationship with the checkout clerk. If you have a Simple Person Card, you get to go to a special register, ring up and get the heck OUT and on with the rest of your life because you have more to do than loiter in a 7-Eleven.


All that being said, I think the new Visa check card ad carries an insidious anti-cash bias.

Clearly, Visa wants you to use their check card because they want you to be their customer. Visa has zero gain if you use cash to pay for something, rather than their check card.

Fine. They're in the business of selling check cards.

However, this ad creates social shame for using cash. The way you change behavior is to shame individuals before their peers, to get them to realize it's in their interest to conform or else be shunned. In this ad, the guy paying cash blows up the orderly system of the deli (i.e., society), bringing the scorn of his peers. The look on the checkout clerk's face is one of embarrassment. The money even looks a little dirty.

What's your anti-cash bias story? Are you down with getting rid of cash? Hey, I see the benefit -- I'm the only one who touches my credit and debit cards, generally, while the cash in my wallet (I don't even like to think about it) has been touched, fondled, rubbed and sat on by countless others.

But I'm not sure I want to be shamed into becoming cashless. What say you?


* Wired News's Monkey Bites blog tells you how to get music off your iPod, using various softwares suggested by readers.

* Here's an early, rough-cut trailer for "Spider-Man 3," due out next summer. Note how some of the action scenes -- Spidey swinging among buildings, for instance -- is represented by digital animation as a placeholder before the final CGI work is done. Also, there's a couple of blue-screen shots. It's sort of a neat, behind-the-scenes look at how a film with copious digital special effects comes together. Here's Sony's high-def version of the trailer on iFlim.

* Your cell phone should be free, Google says. That is, if you're willing to accept advertising on it. Everyone from AOL to CBS online is moving toward a model of providing content for free that is supported by advertising. But how much will consumers swallow?

By Frank Ahrens  |  November 13, 2006; 12:34 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

The closer we move to money being completely theoetical (i.e., we never actually see anything leave our wallets that won't be put back in), the more people will go into debt. And that will suck for consumers (as they're the ones in debt), but be awesome for creditors.

I for one am that person who uses cash, but I also am the one who has some idea of what it's going to cost me and pull out that much while I'm waiting in line (assuming it's safe to do so -- not going to do that in the middle of a dark alley or something).

Posted by: Anonymous | November 13, 2006 1:06 PM

I don't have a debit card, but what isn't shown in the ad is the cashier asking, "Credit or Debit?" I seem to ALWAYS get asked that, even when I use my Discover card (which as far as I know doesn't have a debit version). Debit cards should say DEBIT on them, and/or that bit of information should be encoded on the magnetic strip.

Posted by: Cosmo | November 13, 2006 1:16 PM

Anything purchased at a brick-n-mortar gets cash from me. No info is exchanged - no email address, ZIP Code, Phone Number, snail-mail Address, etc.

It drives them bonkers that they can't contact me later with spam - electronic or snail-mail.

Tough. If they don't want my cash the store next door will take it.

Posted by: Old Guy | November 13, 2006 1:28 PM

The only legal tender in this country is cash. It is illegal to refuse cash. VISA costs money. Cash is free.

Posted by: Steve | November 13, 2006 1:40 PM


Chuck Brown said it best:

American Express
I got nothin' against no credits cards
But cash is the best.

Posted by: CH4 | November 13, 2006 1:40 PM

Cosmo has it right. In addition to the Debit vs. Credit question by the cashier, there is the entry of the PIN number on the device, the "Do you want cash back," and the "Amount OK?" inquiries that all involve additional button-pushing. I have to think a thoughtful person who has the right amount of cash at hand would be the quicker customer. The ad should poke fun at check-writers instead. They really are slow, and there is no reason to write checks in a busy line. That is where check cards have a purpose.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 13, 2006 1:50 PM

Cash sure makes it easy to stay true to a budget. It's pretty hard to buy something when my wallet is empty.

Posted by: DW | November 13, 2006 2:11 PM

"I don't need no stinkin' credit or debit card" if I have cash. Plastic card users just slow down lines and cause an increase in prices because of the fees paid. Besides, don't these people worry about identity theft?

Posted by: Jerry | November 13, 2006 2:15 PM

when I saw the commercial, I rolled my eyes. As easy as it is to pay by credit/debit, cash has always been my first choice - it allows me to budget better, and it's never a problem when there's a technological problem or something wrong with the store's computer system and is unable to accept plastic. Regardless of the form of money, you should always have it out and ready, having made a mental list as to how much it should be while waiting in line: Don't just stand there staring into space while you wait - the sooner you are ready at the register, the sooner you can leave!

Posted by: college kid | November 13, 2006 2:26 PM

If it's illegal to refuse cash, then why does the crepe place in Georgetown (name escapes me) have a no-cash policy?

I think they have it for security reasons.

Posted by: mediajunky | November 13, 2006 2:28 PM

Sorry, it is NOT illegal to refuse cash.

Legal Tender: A Definition

Section 102 of the Coinage Act of 1965 (Title 31 United States Code, Section 392) provides in part:

" All coins and currencies of the United States, regardless of when coined or issued, shall be legal tender for all debts, public and private, public charges, taxes, duties and dues."

This statute means that you have made a valid and legal offer of payment of your debt when you tender United States currency to your creditor. However, there is no Federal statute which mandates that private businesses must accept cash as a form of payment. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise.

Posted by: Non-debtor | November 13, 2006 2:36 PM

What's more annoying to me is when a place only takes cash but doesn't tell you until you get to the register after ordering your food/picking up your items. Then, if there is an ATM nearby, most likely, it's not your bank and you pay an extra $2 for the ATM fee. I mean really people, it's the 21st century; if you own a business give people some options. Carrying cash is not always a great idea in a city anyway.

Posted by: CD | November 13, 2006 2:44 PM

Writing a check is the true time waster and line obstruction. I can't believe that people still write checks for retail purchases, and are not embarrassed in the least about how it slows everything down.

Cash or plastic in retail lines, please!

Posted by: Coloradan | November 13, 2006 3:11 PM

I disagree with Non-debtor. Although the statute quoted may at face value seem a bit one sided (I can offer to pay my debt in cash but the 'lienholder' may refuse to accept it) I believe the courts would side with the cash holder. Bear in mind that checks, credit cards, money orders, gift certificates and all other alternatives to cash are just that - alternative representations of the cash that we (or our banks) hold. Legal tender is what our government has determined is our universal currency for commerce and the foundation for all commercial transactions. I think the reason the place in Georgetown, or any place for that matter, that does not accept cash gets away with it is that A) so many people these days carry credit cards and B) I doubt anyone has challenged them on it. I recall a store that had a minimum charge rule on credit card purchases. When someone finally challenged them on it, they fessed up and got rid of the policy admitting their agreement with Visa nd MasterCard did not permit such restrictions.

As for the Visa commercial - it is an interesting ploy attempting to stigmatize those that pay in cash. The posting about increased prices due to credit card fees is correct - everything does cost a little more because of the fees Visa, MasterCard and AMEX charge retailers for their services. However, I think everyone would agree that the minor increase in cost is a small price to pay to avoid lugging around several hundred dollars the next time you buy a TV or computer.

I suppose everyone is a little bit right in this conversation. Cash and credit cards both have their positives and negatives.

Posted by: MA | November 13, 2006 3:13 PM

"Writing a check is the true time waster and line obstruction. I can't believe that people still write checks for retail purchases, and are not embarrassed in the least about how it slows everything down."

It doesn't quite so much if you have your ID ready and the check mostly filled out (but not signed) when you're waiting in line. But very few check writers I know do this.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 13, 2006 3:47 PM

Cash, e.g. US issued currency, is legal tender - usable for all debts, public and private. Plastic is used 'as cash', accepted by those who choose to take it.

The difference between cash and plastic is that the United States Governement backs cash - not true for plastic.

It's one of those few 'made in America' kind of things that we can still cherish. My 2 cents anyway.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 13, 2006 3:48 PM

I live in an area of the county where credit/debit cards are frowned upon but checks are gladly accepted (go figure). So I've been forced to keep cash with me and being the Washingtonian that I am it makes me a little uncomfortable. Customers should be allowed to use what ever form of payment they want, if the establishment accepts it, without the scornful looks of the other customers or the cashier.

Posted by: IsabellaB | November 13, 2006 3:55 PM

Those of you who write checks for in-person retail purchases: Why? What is the upside? Is it record-keeping?

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | November 13, 2006 3:56 PM

I concur. This ad market immediately hit me with this thought,"This is exactly how I feel about people who write checks!"

Now, I don't glare at them, and neither does everyone in the world. But yes, why write a check? Use the Check Card! It's free; more free than your checks!

Second thing that hit me about this commerical was the CGI. I mean, is it only me, or are special effects not special anymore? Am I to actually believe that people toss bottles of soda 50 yards right into someone else's hand behind the back? Am I supposed to be wowed by this illogical concept? Because in actuality, it looks dumb. It's overused in movies too; are we to be wowed by impossible actions? Now, maybe I'm simple, but I appreciate a human being actually doing things like hanging off a building. And if a human being couldn't do it live, then maybe we shouldn't do it just to say it's there. Stunts are impressive. Cartoons (which is what CGI is basically) are not.

I know I have a horrible suspension of disbelief, but I can't be the only one.

Posted by: Fitz | November 13, 2006 4:21 PM

So this is where the people who pay cash at the gas station are all hanging out? Walking in the store, getting your soda, paying for $20 in gas, walking back to your car, and then finally, pumping your gas. I could have paid, and been gone by the time you got back, but no, *you* decided to take up the pump for 15 minutes. And the only thing I have to comfort me is knowing that you paid 13 cents more a gallon than I did with my 5% rewards card. In your face Cash Cabal!

Posted by: ThisIsNotTheDroid | November 13, 2006 5:13 PM

Chain of late nite diners in Canada refuse cash after 10 pm, credit only

Posted by: kdt | November 13, 2006 5:42 PM

MA, what I posted above is completely from the website - US Government Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Unless there is a State law, no business is required to take cash. If I owed a business and didn't take cash, I would obviously be limiting my customer base BUT if you came in and demanded to pay cash, I would simply say "No" and send you elsewhere. You CAN'T make me take cash but I CAN make you leave my store.

Posted by: Non-debtor | November 13, 2006 7:06 PM

IMO the debit card folks want it ingrained so that they eventually can charge us as well as the merchant. The credit cards I use provide cash back and are fee-free. I hit MY ATM once a week, pull a week's worth of cash for small purchases, and even visit some accounts personally to avoid the 39 cents postage.

Posted by: LRMc | November 13, 2006 7:07 PM

Oops, "owed" = "owned"

Posted by: Non-debtor | November 13, 2006 7:07 PM

Interesting you picked up on this commercial. I did, too, and it made my eyes roll. With the exception of gas stations and certain kiosks that don't require signatures or human interaction, credit/debit cards, IMO, almost always increase the transaction time compared to cash. So, this commercial was contrary to almost all experiences I had with exceptions noted above. I wish everyone paid in cash so lines would move faster. I've seen credit cards get rejected, but not greenbacks. As other posters noted, Visa, the banks, get a cut of every transaction, the merchant pays this cut and passes those costs on to consumers in terms of higher prices. Think of it as another fee you have to pay your bank. Why enrich them further? The emotional void of paying with a credit/debit card is so unlike that of paying with your hard-earned greenbacks. If you force yourself to pay with cash, you'll find yourself spending less readily, esp if you start with a fixed amount in your wallet every week. Try it!

Posted by: aghast | November 13, 2006 7:27 PM

While I'm not of the mind to concern myself with how others pay for their purchases, whether it be with a check or a bag full of pennies, I'd be very happy if I never had to deal with acquiring or exchanging hard currency ever again. I prefer to exclusively pay by credit.

Posted by: Peter Popkin | November 13, 2006 8:00 PM

When we first saw this ad my wife said to me, you could have written that!

I manage a fast-paced coffee shop in dowtown DC (I won't mention the name, but trust me - you've heard of us). So just some perspective from my side of the counter: my number one concern during the morning rush hour (and all the time, really) is customer service and satisfaction. I desperately want people to get in and out as quickly as possible (with a quality beverage and pastry). As someone who watches over 1000 customers a day come through my door, and when we're really busy we're taking care of 200 customers every hour, the number one thing that is holding up the speed of service is customers paying cash. Hands down, no argument. If you want a faster experience for you and fellow patrons, recognize this.

The exception is people who have the cash out and ready, know how much they owe, and don't want change. But that is maybe three of every 100 customers. With a card we simply swipe it, hand it back, and that's it. About two seconds used.

Posted by: Joe | November 13, 2006 8:18 PM

The ironic thing about the commercial is that the time argument is a wash argument. You can give examples on both sides taken long or short (cash = people who count change, bills that need to be broken, credit = people who's cards are rejected, the multitude of options you must punch select sign for). If you add up all the time for all the transaction in the world and lump them as either cash or electronic, it would be hard to say which really has an edge over the other in time. (after all, for as many times the price comes to some number not divisible by 5, like $18.44 there are other that come out as $10 or $10.50, i'm sure in those nice divisible number slapping bills can be faster than the swipe of the card)

The real difference factor (and thus advantages/disadvantages to either method) between cash and debit/credit is risk (for both the carrier AND receiver of the transaction). Several people have pointed this out already. Both have their risks and not by coincidence those risks are opposed to each other. After all the concept of credit arose from the problems of carrying cash. It should be no surprise that the problems of cash can be (mostly) solved by credit and that the problems of credit can be remedies by using cash (or not using credit).

There is one advantage i think people don't really realize about cash is it anonymity. For all the concerns about freedom of privacy, moving to a 100% e-cash world means giving up your right to privacy on your purchases.

Yes, convenience (e.g. time as is the point the commercial tries to make) is advantage. But convenience is really just a matter of perspective and cannot be argument as holding true for everyone in every condition. While person A sees credit being convenient because we doesn't have to carry all this cash, perhaps person B view it convenient to not have to worry about credit card fraud or identity theft.
representing a computer.

Posted by: we need both | November 13, 2006 9:08 PM

Let me ask you credit card payers something... do you pay off your cc bill in full each month?

Unless you do, you're stupid for using a credit card. And when I say "stupid", I'm being kind. It's called "living beyond your means", and you're paying 20%++ per anum for that privilege.

As for cc's in line... they slow down the purchase. I get a coffee every morning from a local shop, and if you pay with cash, you have your $2 in hand, she hands you back fifty cents in change, the transaction takes 10 seconds. With a credit card, it's easily 1 minute.

Posted by: Bunkley | November 13, 2006 10:02 PM

Bunkley - I absolutely have to disagree. As I stated above, I witness hundreds of transactions a day and cash is ALWAYS slower. I have no idea where you're going that it's one minute with a credit card but for us it's two seconds. As quick as a swipe through the machine. We don't ask people to sign receipts...a decision made in the interest of time, we don't ask debit/credit, we don't enter numbers on a keypad....just the swipe and go.

Even with a simple cash transaction as you described, handing over the $2 means the cashier has to open the register, flip up the thingy (an industry term) over the bills to put them in, then dig out the four bits. If you're signing the CC receipt I could see it slowing things down, but if not cash always loses the speed race.

Now, in my position I'm more focused on speed-as-customer-service than most so I'm biased, but a large percentage of our customers in line at any given moment also want to get moving and off to the office.

Posted by: Joe | November 13, 2006 10:52 PM

Hey, Joe (IF that is your real name--what a great name for a coffee seller!)

Thanks for the on-the-ground reporting. 200 customers an hour--that's some pace. Let me ask you for some more data to give us a hint about how we interact with technology: About what percentage of your customers would you reckon pay with cash vs. plastic?

And have you seen the percentages change in recent years?

I think you're a good person to ask because a coffee shop is very democratic -- assuming your population is working people and excludes children, the indigent the retired and so on.

What can your observations tell us?


Posted by: Frank Ahrens | November 14, 2006 12:46 AM

Having worked in the banking industry I use cash more often than not. When you realize that every single item you purchase via Debit or Credit card is analyzed and tracked for Marketing and targeting purposes it makes you think twice about voluntarily relinquishing that type of information.

And for all of you who use credit cards to pay for porn, I just hate to break it to you but there are special tracking codes for illicit activities. They know whether your credit card was used in a strip joint, to pay for a porn movie at a hotel, whether you hit the bar every night, and they know really any and all purchases you thought were private and discreet. Yes they even know if you paid for medication to heal that Yeast infection or just bought some condoms. So be very, very careful what transactions show up on your company credit card because your employer may just be receiving itemized reports of all your red-flagged credit purchases.

That is because every type of company is categorized and all the services/goods offered by that company are categorized by code. It may be cool that some credit card statements itemize each item purchased within a particular store but did you ever think about why and how that information might be used in ways hardly beneficial to you. Your bank or credit card company knows exactly how you spend your money. Now that the Feds are data warehousing credit and debit card purchase information I do not use my debit card unless I absolutely have to. They do not need to know anymore about me than is absolutely necessary. I prefer to stay in control my electronic purchase profile. And like another poster said, cash is a great way to control impulse spending. Oh and another thing, just try using a credit or debit card when paying for a toll. There are still many places where debit or credit cards are not welcome.

So don't believe the hype. Credit and Debit cards have a purpose and can be useful. But like anything you need to think about how you use them and how they can reveal things about you that you may not even choose to tell your best friend. Be smart and selective credit card users.

Posted by: justwhatisgoingon | November 14, 2006 5:24 PM

I note Joe Starucks' obhservations about the realtive speed of cash versus credit card transactions. What Joe does not tell us, probably because no one has ever asked him to measure, is the difference of time, in seconds, between a cash and a credit card transaction. Then there is the matter of whether that difference is significant; not statistically, but operationally. Any difference in time between credit and cash transactions needs to be analyzed against the total transaction time, where total transaction time = time spent deciding what to order + time spent waiting to place order + time placing order + time waiting for order to be filled + time waiting to pay for order + time paying for order.

The only two aspects of the total transaction time that are affected by the cash versus credit question are time waiting to pay for order and time paying for order. Time waiting to pay for order may affected by a number of other factors, such as number of cashiers on duty.

Then there is the matter of whether the person has their money or their card ready. If a person does not have their credit card handy, it will take them nearly as long to retreive it as the requisite cash. So, does any difference in transaction time between cash-ready and credit-worthy customers make a significant difference in the total transaction time?

In the absence of reliable data from a well-structured time-motion field study, I would venture to say no.

As otehrs have noted, there are advantages and disadvantages to both credit and cash. I'm a person who prefers to use cash whenever possible to shield my purchase history from data miners.

Posted by: CH4 | November 14, 2006 5:51 PM

I rolled my eyes the first time I saw this ad as well. Personally, I think this is one of the most pointless ads I've seen recently (only the Geico caveman ads are worse). A whole lot of fancy production work for naught.

From my vantage point, the cash transactions are almost always faster than using a check card. If it was as simple as swipe and go, then the ad might have some truth to it. But, in the real world where deli food is served by actual humans rather than CGI renderings, check card purchases are never that simple or fast.

Between the time to transmit the purchase, punch in the PIN and/or sign the credit slip, wait for the transaction authorization, and print out the receipt -- I could have already handed the cashier my cash, gotten my change, and leisurely strolled halfway down the block with my food already in hand. And if the merchant is using an older point-of-sale terminal that phones in the transaction using a modem, then I might as well break out the checkbook if I'm interested in saving time.

I only use a check card if I find that I don't have enough cash on me. Otherwise, for small purchases like a deli sandwich, using a check card is pointless. Plus, as others have pointed out, these transactions are not free and I don't have any interest in doing things that further pressure prices upward on the things that I buy.

Posted by: Woochifer | November 14, 2006 7:34 PM

This ad creeped me out for the robotlike conformity it pushed. Being "different" was clearly bad - very un-American.

Posted by: bc | November 15, 2006 11:30 AM

Okay, Woochifer, now you've really stepped in it: Name me a funnier, more inventive ad on TV than the Geico caveman ads. They don't make me want to buy Geico insurance, but they sure make me laugh.

Have you seen the two most recent ones? When he's in the airport and on the TV talk show?

Here's the links. Enjoy:

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | November 15, 2006 12:56 PM

What does everyone have to say about the MasterCard (I think) keyfob that you just swipe in front of some sensor at some convenience stores?

Posted by: theAman | November 16, 2006 3:28 PM

The mindless sheep of the world who value convenience for their lazy selves over sanity and security will love this commercial, along with the growing number of obsessive-compulsives and germaphobes.

This commercial is exactly what people have said - a rehash of the old check commercial. Contrary to that classic (if only b/c of all of the policies in place that hinder check usage), VISA must think we're all DAFT for saying that cash is ANY slower than the ridiculous debit/credit anlge and the time it takes to swipe, type, process, authorize and then prompt about cash-back. The commercial makes more sense in the reverse, as cash flows and then the moron who forgot his PIN or typed it wrong --or more likely, the modem connection to the bank is down again-- holds us all up instead.

To business owners who think cash is slower, you're obviously hiring morons who can't even do basic math. It's NOT cash that's slower, it's the morons at cash registers who find it easier for YOU to push buttons than them (as a kid, cashiers taught me how to give the exact change for dollars back - cashiers today give a blank look until you school them on 1st grade addition and subtraction - THAT'S A TRUE AMERICAN TRAGEDY!). I'd be MUCH more worried about the state of US education than cash vs. credit/debit if I were you.

Kudos for the bank person's comment about privacy and security and VIVE LE CASH! Give it up at your own peril...!!!

Posted by: NotASheep | November 17, 2006 9:04 AM

"Okay, Woochifer, now you've really stepped in it: Name me a funnier, more inventive ad on TV than the Geico caveman ads. They don't make me want to buy Geico insurance, but they sure make me laugh."

That's exactly my point -- the Geico ads did not make me any more inclined to switch auto insurance carriers than the Visa ad did with using a check card in lieu of cash.

That whole caveman schtick was funny the first time, but all of the subsequent ads have served as nothing more than exhibit A on how to wear out a joke.

Posted by: Woochifer | November 19, 2006 5:15 PM

All I want to know is.....what is the music from? I seem to remember a cartoon with robots maybe that had the same music? Anyone know for sure?

Posted by: qz1953 | December 8, 2006 6:48 PM

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