A cash-only life? Or, life without a debit card? (publ. 2023-11-16)

Around two months ago, I started an experiment to see how far I could go in living life without carrying around a debit card, and paying for things with cash only.

I suppose I should give a brief explanation of why I would want to do that:

- I like the anonymous nature of cash. Not that I have any dirty spending secrets, but it would be nice to know government and businesses can't judge or evaluate my spending history.

- I want to support the availability of cash by using it myself, in opposition to movements towards digital-only currency

- It makes my accounting and spending more simpler and more transparent, in so far as I get rid of things like automatic withdrawl and the use of checks with a delayed withdrawl

- I feel more unplugged from the Visa system

- I don't have to carry around a debit card which has wireless functionality that I don't trust

- I don't have to share debit card or bank account information with anybody

So, I hid my bank debit card in a safe place in the apartment, and set out to see if I could pay for everything with just cash. I want to emphasize that I am not some young college kid with no responsibilities, but rather a middle-aged family man, with a lot of things I have to pay for every month.

Getting Cash

One of the biggest challenges, right away, is keeping enough cash on hand. Since I do not want to carry around the debit card, that ruled out the use of ATMs. So I have to pick up cash from the bank, which inconveniently is half-way across town and often has long lines. A few years ago my bank had two extra branches in town, very conveniently located, but they got rid of those. So, it is a bit of a bother to get cash. But thankfully drive-through service is still available, meaning I can relax and listen to the radio while I'm waiting.

I found rather quickly that it becomes cumbersome to carry around a bunch of small bills like $20s, and so I usually get $50 or $100 bills. $100 bills of course take less space in the wallet, but some gas stations and other places are hesitant to take them, if they aren't sure they will have enough change.


I haven't had trouble paying with cash anywhere in town, except for at Costco:

- The food court at our Costco has card-only self-serve ordering stations. It was not obvious at first how to order in any other way, but after a few minutes of investigation, I figured out that there was one normal cash register hidden away next to the food distribution area, and that I can do a cash order if I can manage to flag down an employee in the kitchen.

- Costco does not allow cash payments at their gasoline pumps. I can buy a Cosco gift card with cash and use that, if I was really determined.

- All the self-checkout lines allow only card payments, meaning I have to wait in the long lines to pay with cash.

Gas stations are not a problem, except that I always have to go inside to pre-pay. This is never a problem for me, since I only get gas during the day. But I know some gas stations do not have a register available at night due to the staffing shortages around here, so I could see how it might be a problem if I was traveling home late from a trip.

At all other stores I've shopped in around here, it has been easy to pay with cash.

Local re-occuring payments

So, what about recurring bills from local companies, like my ISP, the power company, etc.? The power company was an easy one, as they have a nice office with five customer services desks, and I was the only customer there when I arrived. A self-pay kiosk is available also that accepts cash.

The insurance company was easy. They also gave me a free soda from the refrigerator on the way out, which was a nice perk. I grabbed a Coca Cola.

The ISP was a bit more challenging as their only office is on the far side of town, and the sales guy had some trouble getting the cash register to work. But eventually he passed me off to another sales guy who was able to figure it out.

The rest of the utilities are paid through my landlord. My landlord does not take cash or checks directly — we are supposed to just deposit the money in his bank account. I suppose I could withdraw cash and then deposit the money in his account, but that would be rather silly as we use the same bank and I just have to transfer the money from my account to his.

Non-local re-occurring payments

Next was the student loan payment, which has no local office. There is no way to pay for that with cash directly. I was already in the habit of sending out a check every month for that. The only tweak I made here is to switch from using personal checks to cashier's checks. The advantages of this is my personal bank account number does not appear on the check, and the money is immediately withdrawn from my account when I print the check, which makes for a more transparent bank account balance. The downsides are the small fee, and having to make the trip to the bank to get the check printed.

Online shopping

The special case of Amazon

Though I'm not eager to promote Amazon, in truth most of my online shopping is done at amazon.com, and they do support direct cash payments. Basically how it works is I select the "Amazon PayCode" option at checkout, and then they give me a short number code. Then I have to go to the nearest store that provides Western Union money services. Amazon will give a list of the nearest stores. I go to that store, give them the code and my cash, and then Amazon considers the payment complete and will ship out my order as soon as possible.

There is only one store in my town offering Western Union money services, a local Safeway. But it is close to where I work, so it is easy to stop there. There was a little delay the first time, as the lady working customer service did not know how to process the Amazon payments, but they soon brought over another employee who had done it before.

Note that the store is required to check your ID when you make the payment, so some anonymity is lost. However, Amazon allows you to specify the name of the person whose ID is checked, so you could have someone else pick up the package for you.

Everybody else

Most other online shopping sites don't have a system like that available. I don't know of any ideal solution not involving a debit card.

Of course, there are some third-party online payment systems, like PayPal, that allow you to pay without showing the merchant your debit card or bank account numbers, and that provide various means of topping up your account with a cash payment. That is basically what I wanted, but I didn't want to get tied into a service that adds another layer of proprietary JavaScript whenever I need to go make a payment, or requires managing an account with said JavaScript.

Something I'm been trying lately is using a NetSpend card. It is a debit card tied to a bank account you create with the NetSpend service. You can top it up with cash at any Kroger store, and it doesn't have to be associated with your main bank account in any way. This has some advantages, but in the end is still a Visa debit card attached to a bank account, so your identity is closely tied to all your purchases. And there are transaction fees and top-up fees.

Gnu Taler...? Cryptocurrency...?

I'm interested in Taler, but at the moment (Nov 2023) there doesn't seem to be any merchants using it other than FSF and three free software projects — for donations. Cryptocurrency also sounds interesting, but it seems like I've heard more bad than good about it. In particular, I wasn't sure if I wanted to use or trust any of the cryptocurrency exchanges.

Appendix: More details on NetSpend cards

It is a Visa debit card, tied to an account you create with the NetSpend banking service. It is basically the same thing as a normal bank debit card, except that it can be topped off with cash at any Kroger store (and a bunch of other retailers, I believe), at any regular register. The service does not require using a Web portal to management your account, as registration and options can be managed over the phone. You do need e-mail access, however, to deal with some of the features of the card.

The advantages to NetSpend cards are

(1) It is not associated with my regular bank account, which means if somebody stole the card numbers, I wouldn't have to worry about money being drawn out of my local bank. Just whatever I had put on the card.

(2) Per the above, I don't have to share my normal bank account information with anybody.

(3) I can put money on it with cash at a register.

(4) I can use it for any Web store that takes debit card payments.

The downsides are

(1) There are added per transaction fees (a few dollars) both for making purchases, as well as putting money on the card.

(2) Per federal law, to activate the card I have to give NetSpend all the usual bank account information — Name, phone number, address, etc. — so the government can track all usage. I.e., no anonymity.

(3) Still tied in to the Visa system, which I don't like.

(4) When I tried to make an international purchase, NetSpend refused the payment, and then sent me an e-mail asking if I really was the one who attempted to make the purchase. After clicking yes, I was then able to go back and make the purchase successfully. I can see that becoming a little annoying, but I don't do international purchases that often.

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