Want to know how to tell if someone is of a certain age? The simple answer is they carry cash. Yes, the new marker of middle age is the sound of coins rattling in your purse. In my book, if you have notes or coins on you, that immediately puts you over the age of 40.
I’m 26 and none of my friends ever pay with cash. It is an alien concept for my generation. Like it or not, we are moving toward a cashless society. A measly one in six payments are now made in cash, according to a study by UK Finance last year.
My friends’ aversion to cash became clear when one decided to rent out a venue in Hackney, east London, for her birthday the other weekend. We all agreed to chip in. The hitch? The venue wanted to be paid in cash. The birthday girl’s seemingly simple request for us all to bring a tenner on the night was met with horror and sent our WhatsApp group into meltdown. An onslaught of frantic, panicked messages lit up my phone. “Guys, help, how the hell do I find an ATM?” one asked. “I don’t have a debit card! I only ever pay with Apple Pay on my phone. I just can’t do it,” said another. We were helpless.
The shift toward digital payments was seriously accelerated by the pandemic, when physical money suddenly seemed like a grubby virus-carrier and was banned by many shops. Itsu, Côte Brasserie and Prezzo are among a growing number of chains that have gone card-only for good after the pandemic.
The death of physical money means you won’t catch my friends carrying a purse on a night out. Most will go to a club with their ID and bank card shoved into the back of their phone case. This seems like the best life hack in the world until you accidentally spill a drink over your phone and the debit card in the back becomes so infused with Jägerbomb that the chip stops working. I have made this fatal error several times and would not recommend the phone-purse.
There is only one situation in which I will pay with banknotes and that’s if I am getting my nails done. The east London nail bars I go to have a very strict cash-only rule. Unlike online payments, that is a traceless transaction, so read into that what you will about the legitimacy of my local Vietnamese salons. These days, if a business asks you to pay cash, it’s usually a sign that something a bit dodgy is going on.
That said, cash does feel quite nostalgic and sweet, like VHS tapes. Maybe that’s because the only time I receive it is when my grandparents or great-aunts kindly tuck a 20 into a Christmas or birthday card.
“I don’t have a debit card! I only ever pay with Apple Pay on my phone.”
Yet it is that elderly generation who are being left behind and alienated by the national shift toward contactless and online payments. About ten million people, or one in five adults, in the UK would struggle to manage in a society without cash, and one in three people dependent on cash are over 65, according to a recent report by the Royal Society of Arts.
As technology advances and the way we pay each other gets more and more techy, it is all starting to feel a little bit Black Mirror. My NatWest banking app recently started using facial recognition technology. So to pay someone I just have to blink twice into the camera to prove it’s really me, and the bank transfer is made. Quick and convenient? Absolutely. Creepy and a violation of privacy? Yes, probably that too.
I do wonder what corner of the internet stores those ugly selfies of me drunkenly blinking into the camera when I’m trying to send a friend that $18 I owe for a pizza. The thought of that is almost alarming enough to make me miss the days of paying with good old-fashioned notes and coins. —Georgina Roberts, 26
My Dad Gives Me a £20 Note. How Should I Use This?
I went to visit my family for the jubilee weekend. As we were saying our goodbyes my dad handed me a £20 note (about $25), saying: “Here’s a little something to cover your travel costs.” A generous and nostalgic gesture, but I’m out of the liquid asset habit.
How will I use this note, I wondered? Should I try to buy my Tube and bus ticket home? Can you even buy bus tickets with cash? Or maybe it would be better just to go to a bank and put it in my account. But banks are always closed when I finish work! I put the note in my coat pocket for another moment when I would find it and try to use it.
It’s two days later and I have been given the project of paying for everything with cash for the next 12 hours. On my way down to the Tube from work, I decide it would be a good idea to buy some lipstick for my photoshoot the next day because I definitely don’t want to look washed out. I pick out an inoffensive dark pink number from Rimmel, then go to pay, remembering not to use my phone but to fish out the note from my coat pocket instead. The cashier, already offering me the card machine, asks, “You want to pay with cash?” with a quizzical look as I tentatively present my note. “OK then,” he says, canceling the card transaction.
Shoving the change back in my coat pocket, I go through to the station, ready to buy a ticket from the machine with my coins. But here I already have to admit I cheated. It turns out that a physical ticket is almost double the price of a contactless or Oyster fare. Oyster-less and unwilling to fork out, I guiltily tap the barrier with my phone, pledging to find a reasonable way to pay with cash in the morning.
Since it’s a sort of sunny evening, my boyfriend and I decide to swim in the Hampstead ponds. As a north Londoner, I have made this a relatively regular hobby, often accompanied by a Lucozade Sport and a packet of McCoy’s Flame-Grilled Steak crisps that I buy in the corner shop on the way. The shop insists on a £2 (about $2.50) minimum for cashless transactions, but my items cost £2.05 so I usually just tap my phone. This time I will be that obliging customer who pays with cash. It turns out, however, that the £10 note (about $12) I got as lipstick change is Scottish and the cashier is unwilling to accept it. I must do without my pre-swim snacks.
There’s another hitch at the ponds. They also refuse my £10 note — you need to pay the exact amount. My boyfriend, the gentleman, pays for me since I left my phone and card at home to avoid the temptation to cheat.
After the swim I’m starving and head to Sainsbury’s to buy my dinner. Oven pizzas are on sale in the reduced section so I pluck one out and wait for the self-checkout that accepts cash, relishing the moment when my Scottish tenner is finally accepted.
These days, if a business asks you to pay cash, it’s usually a sign that something a bit dodgy is going on.
The next morning I leave the house earlier to account for any cash mishaps. Unlike most Gen Zs, I actually do know my PIN (just about) and recite it to myself as I stand in line at the ATM.
Then I go to the station, ready to buy an Oyster card, but the machine doesn’t accept cash, so I have to walk to a shop selling Oysters that does. I hand over my tenner, trundle on to work and treat myself with my final coins to a £3.50 (about $4.30) orange juice at Borough Market.
Should I use cash more often to improve my budgeting? Probably. Will I? Probably not. —Blanca Schofield, 24
At the A.T.M., I Realize I Can’t Recall My PIN
Like most people, I was brought up to use cash. From the age of ten I’d be handed money, sent out to buy small items like milk and told to ask for a receipt and check the change. Yet despite this early training, I can’t remember the last time I used cash. With my iPhone, I can use Apple Pay to purchase nearly anything. It’s more efficient and convenient, so why would I use cash? Unless, that is, I’ve been specifically asked to by my editor.
My typical morning routine consists of leaving the house soon after 9am to catch a train to London Bridge, which departs at 9.23am. It’s a ten-minute walk and I’d usually give myself just 13 minutes to get there and tap through the gate with Apple Pay. Today I give myself an extra 15 minutes and head to the ATM to withdraw money. Once there I have to browse through my phone to find a note with a PIN reminder. I take out $50, not because I’m planning on spending that much, but because I don’t want to risk running out.
At the ticket machine there’s a queue, which means another delay. Both the people ahead take a while getting their wallets out. Finally at the front, I buy a single ticket from the station to London Bridge, which costs me $9. The change is a £10 note (about $12) — and coins. My wallet doesn’t have a coin compartment. I put them in my trouser pocket, where they jingle. It’s a sound I associate with a different generation of men.
At lunch I head to Borough Market and buy a mocha for $4.50, a large pretzel for $4.30 and some bread for $4.30. I’ve spent $13.10 in ten minutes. Would I have noticed if I’d been paying by card? I’m astounded by how rapidly my money is disappearing. I also realize that taking $50 out with me was a good idea, because I still have another $25 in my pocket; the £2 coin (worth about $2.50) would not have got me home on a train.
My final purchase of the day is a $9.20 train ticket home. If I buy train tickets on my card it’s half the price. I suddenly realize I’ve been penalized for using cash. Would I try this again? It certainly made me think about small purchases — but it was also inconvenient. —Kupa Rusike, 21
Georgina Roberts, Blanca Schofield, and Kupa Rusike are all editorial assistants at The Times Magazine.