I recently set out on a simple mission: to break the £10 note in my purse so I’d have a five to put in the church collection plate on Sunday. My first attempt backfired. The café, where my order was delivered with an eye-roll of metro disdain, no longer accepted cash payments. I sat at one of their pavement tables, drinking the single macchiato I’d neither wanted nor needed, and considered my next move.
I’m aware that cash is now regarded as a grubby anachronism. All those hands it passes through! Eww! Of the two churches I attend, one has stayed ahead of this trend and installed payment terminals in the nave: tap and give. I can offer no rational objection to this. I simply don’t like it. It doesn’t feel like giving, just as in shops tapping doesn’t feel like actual spending.
My other church still clings to the parishioner-with-a-basket method of collecting donations and I suspect always will. I like it, particularly the theatre of it. The week-on-week frantic fumbling for a wallet, as though the offertory has been sprung like a nasty surprise. My personal difficulty is that I really can’t afford to give them a tenner every week. I don’t want to say ‘I gave last time’, and I wouldn’t have the chutzpah to ask them to give me change.
Church-giving is of course the least of it. There are many occasions when parting with a few coins feels like the right thing to do.
I have written before about the decease of hard-currency pocket money. My grandchildren all have bank accounts and they are vaguely aware that a birthday cheque is more than a pretty piece of paper. Cash is something they rarely see. Indeed, now they have mobile phones they’ll probably be getting one of those apps, like GoHenry, so that dosh from granny can be transferred to them silently. Simple, quick and quite stripped of moment.
Time was when I’d have bunged them each a fiver, but ATMs dispense nothing smaller than a ten, so now what? Ask baffled pre-teen siblings to split ten between them? Like, how? With scissors?
It’s now well established that the Covid virus doesn’t linger on coins and banknotes, but the prejudice against cash hasn’t gone away. When they started providing Big Issue sellers with bank card and QR code readers, you knew the cash game was all but up.
The latest figure for the bankless in the UK is around 1.2 million. They have their reasons. There are those who prefer to keep their money where they can see it. My late, lamented grandmother kept hers in her knicker drawer, guarded by mouse traps. Some people fear banks, or don’t have the wherewithal, intellectual or material, to open an account. It’s difficult to join the banking system if you have no fixed address or regular income. If you live in a sleeping bag on the streets of Luton or Nottingham or, yes, Westminster, how does personal banking work?
My quest for a small cash transaction continued. The supermarket tills wanted cards, cards, cards. Then I happened upon one of those Mom and Pop shops that sells a bit of everything. They were surprised by my question. Yes, they accepted cash and did so in exchange for their cheapest sheet of wrapping paper. I was cashed up, with a fiver for the collection plate and a couple of coins for my pocket.
Making my way from one side of the Thames to the other, I passed a number of rough sleepers. Many had been brought hot drinks and sandwiches by early passersby. I was glad to have a few quid to disburse. Guilt money? Sure. Money that would likely be spent on drugs? That too — although I’m not sure what pharmaceutical comfort my pitiful offering would buy you on the street.
Accepting cash from a stranger may be a humiliating and uncomfortable thing to do. Would card readers for all sanitise the transaction and alleviate that? No need even to look each other in the eye. Or would it be just another way of distancing ourselves from the power of lovely money? For me, the jury is still out, and as a relic of a generation for whom cash was king, I’m loading up with fivers and coins. As soon as I find a bank with an actual breathing teller.