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Live Local, Live Small: Moving into the realm of abandoning credit cards and paying with cash

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“Hold on! Let’s see what I have in here.” I abandoned the search through my pockets for dollar bills and switched to my purse. The nice ladies at the vet’s office gave each other meaningful looks, and one suppressed a smile as I counted out money to pay for Hosanna’s medicine. Now that I am in a serious determination to pay off my credit cards and have actively (finally) moved into the land of paying with cash, there have been some interesting changes for me.

dollars

The first is that—believe it or not—I really do spend less. Before I leave the house to go to the hardware store, I have to stop and think about what I am getting and how much money to take with me. Going out to dinner? I play what I am going to have and remember to take enough to tip my kind and hardworking servers. I found that when my mind went to, “Well, I’ll just put it on a credit card and worry about it later,” not only did I buy more extravagantly, I also ordered more extravagantly. It’s an interesting thing to think about.

Like many small, retail-shop owners, I am forever hoarding $1s, $5s and coinage for the change drawer at the store. It makes for a lot of eye-rolling and amused, sarcastic commentary from my staff when they call to tell me they need change. I come in with a coffee cup (frequently still sticky in the bottom) filled with a mish-mash of coins and small bills.

“Did you ever consider opening a bank instead of bookstore?” Anthony half-grumbled, half-chuckled. “With your organizational skills,” he trailed off and gave me a meaningful look for the punchline.

I admit that on the outside it might look a bit haphazard, but there really is a method to it. As a small-business owner, I have long felt that cash is king. It protects the privacy of the purchaser, has fewer opportunities for errors, and the errors are far easier to fix than those with credit cards. More so, the full value of the transaction goes to the business rather than a big bank that does not invest in this community.

It has made me curious about the history of cash and how it has developed. Throughout most of recorded history, humans have used some form of receipt or stand-in for goods to be traded: Things would be logged into a warehouse and then a receipt would be given that could be used in bargaining and negotiations. Metal coinage emerged early on (found references are in the book of Genesis).

What we think of as a modern paper currency came to the West from China by way of the writings of Marco Polo. According to Neil Fulghum’s “A Brief History of North Carolina Money,” early in the Colonial Era, North Carolina decided it needed to issue some form of bank note to finance the Tuscarora Indian Wars. In 1712 and 1713 the Colonial Assembly “approved the issue of 12,000 pounds in bills of credit to pay for military equipment and supplies.” Though Guttenberg’s printing press was in existence by then, the construction and purchase of a printing press was still extremely expensive; consequently, all the notes were hand written. Adding in the state’s subsequent authorizations through 1729, the official handwritten bills came to 76,000 pounds.

Think about that: People sat down and hand wrote out 76,000 pounds worth of paper money by sunlight and candlelight. Besides the physical effort involved, can you even fathom what the opportunity for counterfeiting would have been like? I mean, we aren’t talking about an age of holograms and bills that turn colors with pens. It was just a piece of paper, hand-written to represent a cash value that incidentally was not backed by gold value deposited in a central bank. It was the most mythical paper money could get.

From Fulghum: “At first it appeared that paper money might be a convenient, quick solution to the colonies’ financial problems. Unfortunately, the over-production of these currencies and counterfeiting of bills began to erode public confidence in domestic issues. By 1720, bogus money had become a very serious problem in North Carolina.”

It wasn’t until 1734 that NC’s government discontinued the use of handwritten money, and had printers in other colonies print their subsequent notes. Finally, Governor Johnston brought a public printer to the state to handle not only the printing of public notices and records but also currency. It seems counterfeiting remained a problem, as Fulghum notes NC’s assembly passed legislation in 1745 that stated that for the first offence:

“Anyone convicted of forging, altering, or knowingly passing counterfeit bills would publicly stand in the Pillory for the space of two hours, have his ears nailed to the same and cut off.”

After a second conviction, the offender would be summarily executed “without benefit of Clergy.”

Woah.

It is not hard to imagine: You own a printing press (one of the few in the colonies at that). You have the plates to make notes. Who is going to know if you make a few extra for you and your family? You can see the temptation.

In the late 1790s, gold was discovered in Cabarrus County and the state entered the beginning of the new minting of gold coins. We also had a gold rush long before California (who knew?). The outbreak of the Civil War had many unexpected consequences, and one them was that the new Confederate States had to produce paper money. Unfortunately, they had very little to back it with. Remember the reoccurring motif in stories set during reconstruction: “Do you have any real money, like gold money?” Confederate paper was worthless. (Of course, now to collectors, it has incredible value. C’est la vie.) However, it was when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began issuing our currency in 1887 that the fluctuation of paper and ease of counterfeit started to come under control.

Returning to me and this cash thing: I have moved into the land of envelope-method budgeting. It entails labeling envelopes and putting cash inside each to make sure I have things covered and prepared for. Actually, I discovered that when travelling, this really helped: I set a number I was willing to realistically spend each day and made sure each day of my trip had a labeled envelope, with enough cash to cover expenses and some small bills for tips (porters, wait staff, taxis, etc.), to accompany it. Perhaps for the first time in my adult life, I came back from traveling under budget instead of drastically overextended.

Then there is grocery shopping. For years I felt like I needed to get to the point where I wasn’t putting groceries on plastic. That was just like selling my soul to the company store for a loaf of bread. It was a hole I just couldn’t climb out of. There are a lot of items that the bookstore constantly needs (TP, paper towels, light bulbs, milk, sweeteners, plastic ware, garbage bags, cleaners, soaps, ets.) that I grab while I’m at the store and pay for without separating it out for the business account. I just put it all together with Jock and my household needs. Though it raises some eyebrows from the younger cashiers at the grocery store when I start counting out a handful of $20s to pay up, it has been tremendously freeing.

I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the things we can’t afford right now will be put off until we can. I am close to getting my head above water and keeping it there. Cash is private and thorough. Join me in feeling the freedom it affords.

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