Members of the Greyhares’ generation have lived through two seismic monetary advances. In 1993 it was the introduction of the free movement of goods and capital across Europe’s Common Market. Six years later we witnessed the introduction of the Euro-Zone’s common currency – the euro. Now we are facing a third and, for the individual, even more significant revolution. Interestingly this particular change, which is almost complete, has occurred without any specific legislation, without a start date and with little trumpeting.
I refer to the introduction of the cash-free society, put another way, the abolition of traditional money. Already, with a credit or debit card, a mobile phone or an iPad, I can buy goods or services essentially anywhere and at any time. I can also check my bank account, pay my bills through the Internet and move money between accounts. And in London, as in many large cities, I can travel on public transport with no money changing hands.
Although there is no longer a real need for cash, there are those, such as myself, who still cling to its use. To this end I don’t think I am unique in having supplies of cash tucked away in the house or carried on me when I go out. What’s more, having such stashes feels right; were I to be without a ready source of cash, I would see myself as negligent. I suspect that having ready money has an emotional dimension. Perhaps, rather than having a cheque card, cash provides me with the feeling of security – the financial equivalent of a child’s security blanket, something which I was denied as a child.
My inventory of stashes at home consists of an elephant money box, last emptied just before Christmas; a broken saucer for small change; an inlaid wooden box where I recently found the equivalent of £100 in Canadian dollars and a cardboard box labelled “Dad’s Desk” that I came across again just last week. In it there were some New Zealand notes that would have been there at least fifteen years.
When going out, I carry one wallet for UK notes (and one for Euros when abroad) and a purse for large change. When driving a car there is a tray of coins for parking. In addition to these stashes, I always carry a £20 note ‘for emergency’. It is tucked away behind my bus pass in a separate season-ticket wallet where it usually gets forgotten. It was to this hidden note that I turned last week.
It was early morning and I was buying some milk on my way back from the gym. As I was about to pay, I realised that I had no money with me. “Could I take the milk now and return to pay you later?” I asked the shopkeeper. He agreed but then I changed my mind. I have always found the shopkeeper an ingratiating, at worst an obsequious, man; how could I allow myself to be in his debt even to the sum of £1.08? Then I remembered the £20 note in my season ticket wallet. I unfolded the note, and just as we were about to do business, the shopkeeper became very agitated. He stopped in his tracks, began to go pale, and started fiddling around in the back pocket of his trousers. My discovery of the £20 note had triggered a sense of panic – it had reminded him that he hadn’t seen his own ’emergency’ stash of notes for days.
It took him some time to extricate the wallet from an over-tight pair of trousers and when it was dislodged he checked inside. With a mixture of relief and triumphalism he flicked through a wad of £50 notes to the value of £4,000. He explained that, though he is now in his late sixties, since a young man he has always carried cash “just-in-case”. “One never knows,” he added without explanation. He waved his bulging wallet at me, then looked at my much slimmer equivalent and made a very male gesture to indicate that his was bigger than mine. I was pleased to leave, with milk and change in hand.
As soon as I got home I replenished the £20 note – just in case. My emotional attachment to cash had just been given a new twist. Perhaps a cashless society will force me to leave certain aspects of my childhood behind.