I just had lunch with Anna Almendrala, the 27-year-old associate editor of Huffington Post's Los Angeles page. She ended our meal by ordering a cup of coffee to go, and whipped out a plastic card to pay for it. I think the coffee cost $2.75.
It dawned on me: Anna is part of the generation that doesn't carry cash. Never, as in Not Ever. I find this kind of fascinating because if I didn't have a wad of cash in my wallet, my inclination would be to drop what I was doing and rush to the nearest ATM. The thing with carrying cash? It's a generational thing.
Anna uses a debit or credit card for everything, including parking meters. She uses plastic to fill up her gas tank, pay for her restaurant meals, make her in-store and online purchases. There is not so much as a single fat nickel in her slim wallet, just her credit and debit cards and her driver's license for ID.
She feels liberated. The mother in me wanted to press a ten-spot into her palm.
No, it's not just Anna. I asked for a show of hands in the Los Angeles newsroom of who regularly carries cash and the only one that shot up was the hand of a 58-year-old guy. Nobody else regularly carries cash. It's also not just an L.A. thing. I asked a bunch of 20-something New Yorkers whether they carry cash. "No," "not much of it" and "not often" were the responses. They use pre-paid transit cards for the subway and even taxis nowadays take debit cards.
I was raised to carry not only enough cash to cover every possible contingency, but to carry it in multiple places on my person as a safety precaution. When I was a teenager dating, there would always be a few dollars stuck in my shoe. We had a little signal, Mom and me; she'd look meaningfully at my feet as I left the house on a date, and I would give her a short affirmative nod as I blew a kiss good night. It was Mother-Daughter code for keeping you safe back in the '60s.
Having cash on you, I was taught, was protection against the unknown. It was your "just in case" armor. No one ever said what "just in case" could possibly be, and like all good imaginations run amok, my "just in case" mental reel was filled with blood and guts and my body being dumped in the woods on the outside of town -- all presumably because I didn't have money on me to call for help. Carrying cash, even to this day, makes me feel more secure.
But I'm pretty sure that the practice of carrying cash will die with my generation.
For all the security cash gives me, it has the exact opposite effect on the 20-somethings.
"Having cash on me feels risky," said Huffington Post Women's editor Margaret Wheeler Johnson. "If I lose it, it's gone. If your credit or debit cards are lost or stolen, you don't lose any actual funds."
OK, there's that. And then there's Anna's reason. Not carrying cash helps her budget.
She uses mint.com, she said, a website that analyzes your spending. By using plastic for everything, all her spending information is recorded. If she paid with cash, there would be no spending record to keep track of. The site is free for users but does recommend various paid financial management tools and services for which it takes a cut.
Truth is, despite the security that carrying cash gives me, I rarely use it myself. Besides tipping the occasional valet or bellman, my wallet serves primarily as the family ATM. Every so often, my husband puts a few hundred dollars in my purse and my kids make withdrawals from my wallet as they need it. Aside from that, the money just sits there. But with it there, I at least know that I won't wind up dead in the woods.