I’ve gone about two months now without touching a dollar. If I’m honest, I must admit it’s beginning to wear on me. I thought this stunt would be a cakewalk but, to my surprise, I find I’m pleading for it to end.
As I’d anticipated, most of my daily routine is unaffected by going cashless. But nearly every day I’m troubled by some trivial, cash-only obstacle. Once again this morning, I wanted to buy a soda at my corner bodega, and then remembered that the credit card minimum is five bucks. I’ve been told if you push back on rules like this they’ll relent, so I gave it a whirl. No dice: The guy at the register looked at me with zero sympathy and said, “You gotta talk to da boss about dat.” I was in a hurry. I didn’t talk to the boss. I left without my soda.
There have been cash-only coat checks at restaurants and clubs. Off-duty taxis that demand off-the-books payment, and then drive away when I refuse. A coffee kiosk in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum that had no credit card reader and thus couldn’t sell me a badly needed dollop of caffeine.
These are hardly tragedies. Just silly inconveniences. But the steady drumbeat of minor annoyance is taking a strange psychological toll on me. The drip-drip of microloans I accept from buddies. The repeated explanations when people wonder why I don’t just use that ATM right over there. Life would be simpler if I could stash a couple of twenties in my pocket and be on my way.
The other day, when a friend pulled out some bills to buy himself a pack of gum, I found myself ravenously eyeing that wad of green paper. It was a tactile yearning: I realized I long to feel money in my palm again. To peel off some Hamiltons and slap them on a counter. Maybe jingle some loose change in my fist. There’s something ingrained in us that causes us to enjoy the tangible pleasure of money—I guess on a very basic level it’s related to the fact that holding some money means you, like, have some money.
A few readers have suggested I play around with virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin. Though Bitcoin seems cool—minted by cyberpunks!—it won’t sate my desire to clutch actual ducats in hand. I did, however, find a different alternative currency. One with a physical manifestation. It’s called Dance Dollars.
A little background. When I tell people I’m living cashlessly and ask them to set challenges for me, folks frequently suggest that I should go to a strip club and attempt to tip the dancers with something other than $1 bills. Early on, I had visions of making it rain with gift cards from Victoria’s Secret. But I was nervous that the cards might make the dance floor slippery. No one wants to get beat up by angry strippers with bruised hips.
Then someone told me about Dance Dollars. Dance Dollars are accepted only at the FlashDancers gentlemen’s club in Times Square. (Though I’m pretty sure you can also spend them in certain Moscow neighborhoods.) You buy them with a credit card and then, for the length of your visit to FlashDancers, they are legal tender.
One Dance Dollar bill costs $23, and it buys one lap dance.
I ducked into FlashDancers in the early afternoon on a Tuesday and bought some Dance Dollars (the minimum is three, for a total $69 charge on your credit card) at a stand located under a neon “Dance Dollars” sign. The bills were garish purple and were printed on thick, slick paper. It felt great to have some money in hand again—even if it was money that could be used solely in one sad, dank, exploitative corner of the service sector.
I handed a Dance Dollar bill to Lola, a very nice seeming lady “originally from Southern Russia, near the Black Sea.” As she gyrated, I asked her about the alternative store of value I’d just transferred into her possession. She had strong feelings on the matter. Turns out Dance Dollars are a rip off for the dancer and for the customer.
A lap dance paid with U.S. currency is $20, not $23, so in effect I’d paid a 15 percent conversion fee. And poor Lola gets only $16 when she redeems that nominal $23 from the club—a dreadful exchange rate, worse than those booths in foreign airports. If I’d paid in cash, she’d have kept an extra $4. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” I said. “It’s not your fault,” she purred. But I sensed some lingering resentment as she waggled her boobs toward my chin. Either way, it seems unlikely that Dance Dollars will ever become a core global currency. Their only real utility is for drunk, lazy strip club patrons who run out of cash and can’t be bothered to go outside and find an ATM. (Or don’t have enough money in their checking accounts, and thus need to buy these lap dance coupons with a credit card. Which, word to the wise, is not a fantastic personal finance strategy.)
My other cashless experiment this week was to use a nifty car service called Uber. Once you’ve entered your credit card info into Uber’s smartphone app, you can order an instant pick-up. (The dispatcher knows where you are through your phone’s location data.) You hop in and out of the car with no transaction necessary, gratuity included. They text you a receipt. It’s all delightfully seamless, and you roll in style—sleek black cars, friendly drivers. However, taxis in New York basically all take credit cards anyway, and cost significantly less. Also, when I ordered an Uber car to take me to the airport at 4 a.m. one weekday morning, there were none available. I fell back on old reliable: hailing a cab in the street.
On the plus side, I have managed to pay back pretty much all the debts I’ve incurred. For those still fretting about the broke young couple I let buy me beers a little while back, I sussed out how to wire them money using Amazon payments. Conscience salved. And as best I can tell, no fee extracted by Amazon.
Mainly, though, I go about my life as I normally would—with just a smidgen less convenience. We are a hair’s breadth from living in a cashless society but, frustratingly for me, we aren’t there yet. In all sorts of little corners of my world, cash is still king.
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