Cash, Credit, or… Does Anyone Still Write Checks?

The other day I was in Costco buying dog food.

Heck of a deal, 24 cans for $19.99. That’s less than a dollar a can — 83¢ to be exact — for good quality dog food. This is smart shopping in action, folks.

Since it was just the one item, I didn’t bother with a cart. Lines move fast at Costco.

Or at least, they usually move fast. When you’re holding a case of dog food, a case growing heavier by the second, it slows to a grinding halt.

I look ahead to see what the issue is: a woman writing a check. (Seriously? Who writes checks anymore?!)

I stare at her in disbelief. Surprised Costco even takes the things. (Several places don’t.) Also, I’m willing to bet the woman’s handwriting is immaculate. She takes such inordinate care with it.

I shift the now 300-pound crate in my arms. Finally she’s done. Her check noted in her register and the subtraction completed (good Lord!). The woman ahead of me checks out quickly. She uses her debit card. Zip, zip, she’s done.

My turn.

The clerk thanks me for my patience. I ask her how often she gets checks.

“Not often. Maybe two or three a month.”

She scans the case, tells me the total. I hand her a couple bills. “Oh, I might have change.”

She waits as I search for coins.

Only later did it occur to me how I slowed down the line nearly as much as the check woman.

It was about 17 years ago, almost to the day, that Husband and I switched to using cash for almost all of our daily transactions. We had recently moved to Phoenix, a local radio station played the Dave Ramsey show — maybe you’ve heard of it? — we decided to give his envelope system a try and was surprised how well it worked for us. We’ve been doing it ever since.


However — lest you fear this is turning into a Dave Ramsey infomercial — I’m not saying it’s for everyone or even that it’s the smartest way to handle your money. I’ve heard many with different opinions.

Ryan, my cashier at Target, said he never uses cash. Not even for a candy bar. He said this after I declined his offer for a Target Red Card (5% off all purchases!).

“I never have to worry about cash getting stolen, ya know?” he said, as he took my money. “If you don’t carry it, they can’t take it.”

I could have pointed out that if someone takes my cash, they only have my cash. If someone takes his credit or debit card, theoretically, they could empty his account or at least make his life hellish for a little while.

Even so, Ryan the Target Cashier is not the only advocate for a cash-free society. There are many saying we’re headed there, it’s only a matter of time. Some countries, most notably Sweden, are nearly cashless now. Safety is the biggest advantage cited, as well as convenience and, yes, speed. But not everyone is convinced it’s the way to go, and since Americans do love their privacy, it’s unlikely I’ll have to switch to digital currency terribly soon.

Though there is that Bitcoin thing. (Does anyone understand how that works? Truly?)

The thing is, I like cash. I like putting all the bills in my wallet, in order, heads up of course. I like adding up purchases in my head as I’m shopping and taking a guess at the total before the clerk hits the button — I love it when I’m super close, like within a few cents, and am already handing the amount to the cashier.

Oh, the power of Math.

Even so, I will say that while using cash has been instrumental in helping us stick to a budget, for increasing our savings nothing has worked better than depositing everything into a savings account first, and moving only what we need for monthly expenses into a checking account. Also, money is moved automatically into a long-term savings account. All deposits and transfers done electronically, most without us doing a thing. Works like a charm.

So I understand people’s love of digital transactions. I expect they might feel a little less tied to their money, maybe a little more secure with their purchases. And if Ryan the Target Cashier thinks he does a fine job staying on budget, who am I to say otherwise? Nevertheless, for groceries and what-have-you, I’m sticking to cash only, please.

I will say this however: From here on out, I’ll knock it off with making exact change. That is my pledge to you, impatient Costco customer behind me.

Photo of billfold by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
Featured photo my own (Yes, that’s my money)
(No, you can’t have it)

36 thoughts on “Cash, Credit, or… Does Anyone Still Write Checks?

  1. I’ve kinda gone the other way – I keep cash on me for when it’s easier, but all of my budgeting and spending happens electronically. Of course, I’m an auditor so I live in excel, and my household budget is no exception. That works for us!

    I think Dave Ramsey is great when it comes to advising people on day-to-day spending. He’s got a really good grasp on the changes in habits that have to happen (and the psychological tricks to make those changes happen, such as the envelope system) in order to get control of finances.

    Where I disagree with him is his opinion on debt – I think he really doesn’t grasp that to a certain extent, debt is necessary, and part of managing your money is using debt responsibly, especially in the first 1/3 – 1/2 of your life where you have student loans, moving expenses, a car, a house – all things that are ultimately more costly in the long run if you don’t just bite the bullet already and incur the debt.

    1. We’ve had enough times where cash was so useful, as the time in Target when all the card readers were down, or after a loooong lunch involving split checks and all I do is plop down the cash and I’m out of there, while everyone else has to use their card — long winded way of saying I really like using cash. 🙂

      As for debt, except for the mortgage we’ve been debt free for 15 years, and we only have two years left on the house. I know it’s naive to think we’ll always live this way, but dang it feels good! Of course, we’re past the first 1/2 of our life, so that probably accounts for it! 😀

      1. Not naive at all! At that point in your life you should be able to be debt-free!

        My student loans are gone, and we had zero car payments (until both cars died recently), and we keep paying the credit card off, only to have things like – an overnight hospital stay, or $15k getting paid to lawyers, or appliances dying suddenly.

        The good news is that we have great retirement savings and a house that’s appreciating in value. I definitely did NOT follow Dave Ramsey’s advice on waiting until we had saved a 20% down payment before buying. WAY too much opportunity cost there!

        1. I hear ya!
          At some point you gotta wonder how in touch he is with the current financial state of most households. His business (I’m guessing) has gotta be raking in big bucks, and the stories of his own hardships are from several years past. Times have changed, as have prices. 😳

  2. I’m waiting for the computer at Costco to have face recognition and an AI based camera system coupled with GPS, RFID chips. Then when I am walking around Costco, the computer system adds up my bill as I put things into (or take things out) of my cart/arms/pocket/purse. When I walk out of the store it will just automatically deduct the total from my bank account. On top of that, it will all be tied back to my personal accounting/budgeting/health management software and I’ll get a alert on my cell phone implant that the candy bars I just picked up are 1) over my budget and 2) over my daily calorie count. Violations will be reported to spouse/doctor/parent and/or law enforcement agency as appropriate.

    Then there is the Amazon version where you just say out loud what you want and a drone will fly whatever you wanted right to your current location (or any other location you wanted). Amazon’s AI and data centers will have predicted in advance what you wanted (base on past orders, the state of bank account, health records, and arrest reports), so everything you need will be warehoused within 1 mile of your home/office/hospital/police station.

    today I just use Visa for everything and have monthly “conversations” with my wife about the bill and the questionable items.

    1. Okay, I was totally with you on everything until the monthly “conversations” with the spouse. That’s just waaaay too dangerous! 😉

      I daresay your predictions aren’t far off. They might sound like science fiction, but like all great science fiction tales, there’s an element of truth to them. So my fear is, given the state of my bookshelves ever since Amazon added one-click shopping, where the heck am I going to put all the new stacks of tomes I just named out loud?! 😳

      1. Just say to Alexa, “I need shelf space for my new books.” Then they will cross reference your book reviews on various platforms to decide if you’ve read the books you have and the will either:
        1. refuse the order because you haven’t read what you have.
        2. offer to sell you new shelving to hold the books.
        3. offer to sell your used books (a drone will be dispatched to pickup).
        4. send you a list of thrift stores, recycling centers, schools, etc who would take your used books.

        Got to go, I’m off to my lawyer to get a patent on that…

  3. A couple of things: One, having worked on the cashier side, I personally appreciated it when someone gave me exact change. It kept me from depleting the stock in my drawer and lessened the possibility of running out of any of the denominations (especially the coins) and the subsequent need to shut down my register and run get more change, making EVERYBODY wait.

    Two, I have a budget app on my phone. Every purchase I make is entered , and the program lets me know in real time when I’m in danger of exceeding my limits. (It even reminds me of how much I spent the last time I was at a particular location, so I can identify possibly extravagant purchases and make adjustments.) It’s done wonders for me, as I know on a daily basis exactly where my money is or isn’t going.

    1. First off, so glad to know there’s someone who gets me! Back in my cashier days, I guarded my drawer like it was the Holy Grail, and oh the joy if every slot was filled, including the $10 bills. Bliss!

      Two, this budget app sounds marvelous! Do you care to share the name, perhaps? Pretty please? 🙏

      1. The app is called “My Budget Book” (isn’t that cute?) and is available for android phones. (I am not sure about other platforms.) It cost a few dollars, don’t remember the exact amount, but it was just that one-time fee, years ago, and I still get regular updates. I will say that I went through several apps before I found one that was personally appealing, so you might want to experiment. One of my friends (who has appeared in a few of my stories as “Sage Thunderbolt”, trivia) has an app that actually allows you to photograph a receipt and then it extracts the information it needs, but (so far) it doesn’t do well with billing statements. I (manually) enter EVERYTHING in my app, so I haven’t tried his fancy one. Fair warning: My app is a wee bit labor intensive when you first set it up (building categories and subcategories and accounts) but the pay-off is worth it for the detailed reports. Last I checked, there are quite a few budget apps out there, so there might be one that is a better fit for you. It just depends on what makes you happy.

  4. I haven’t used checks in years. I use my debit card in most cases now but I ‘ve started to use cash more and more. It’s just better to use cash if you’re on a budget.

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely true for me. I consider myself frugal and good with money. Yet I notice whenever I’m shopping with cash, I’m very aware of every item I’m buying and have a running total in my head, but if I’m using debit I’ll add extra things to the cart almost without thinking. “Gosh, that’s a good buy! Oh look, Breyer’s is on sale! I should buy two!”

  5. Pretty much it’s all “tap” for me now. I resisted it at first, but now out comes the card, tap and off I go. I do track everything in my money software though. I just forget to go to the ATM and get cash out usually.

    1. Yeah, I get that. Our credit union has closed a few branches and it’s getting trickier finding a no-fee ATM anymore. Recently our grocery story added a free delivery service too — you go online, do your shopping, pay with a card and within two hours the items are delivered at your door. At times that sounds really tempting. 🙂

      1. I tried that twice here, was ok, but sometimes it was hard to find the item in their software, and that just frustrated me because I know in the supermarket exactly where it is (unless they have rearranged again, which they seem to do haphazardly often).

        1. Ah yes, I can see how that would be frustrating. Plus, I imagine they try and influence you to buy more while in person I have a better shot at staying firm. Kind of like ordering pizza online, a pop-up says “add a cookie for 50 cents?” 😉

          1. I’m the opposite, if I can’t see it I won’t go looking for it – so online is good for that, but in the supermarket they are very good with placement (or very bad, spending on how you look at it).

  6. So, here in France les chèques (checks as you cross-pond people call them and cheques as they are called in Britain where they are being phased out) are sacred. So is having a long conversation about your entire life at the caisse (cash register). Even in large supermarkets you can literally grow a full beard waiting for your turn in a queue of one other person! We use cash and when I don’t I get a sort of bravado mist and I always spend more than I would. Then my husband makes thinly veiled remarks about the state of the French bank account and I revert to the cash. Its a sort of non-erotic gavotte that we dance a couple of times a year. That was some dirty deal on the dog-food by the way.

    1. Ah yes, I remember reading about the French manner of shopping in a David Sedaris book, and how walking into a shop and requesting an item without first discussing the weather, admiring the shopkeeper’s lovely window display, and describing the wine you enjoyed before walking into said shop is simply not done.
      The dog food is one heck of a deal, as Miss Freckles will confirm. She’s an old gal of 12 years, but this food still brings on the happy dance. 🐶

  7. I admire your money management system, and applaud your dedication to savings. While traveling in Mexico, I only used cash. I really liked the simplicity and speed of my transactions. Most cashiers appreciated exact change or not having to break big bills, so I always tried to keep a wallet full of various notes (face up, of course) and a pocket full of peso coins. Using cash was sort of nostalgic, and a nice break from our electronic payments culture here in the U.S.

    1. Sounds like a fun trip!
      I read once of a study showing how people who kept their cash in their wallet organized by denomination, face forward and up, etc., are better money managers than people who don’t. Which was interesting, but did they really need a study to prove that?

  8. This post makes me feel so much better about my brand of crazy. 1) Your masterful perspectives on common things many of us miss, and your delightfully twisted sense of humor is snarky enough to make you fully dimensional without too many harsh reality lines that can restrict the imagination. Clearly. Coffee. Overdosed.

    The cashiers at my local Winco have come to appreciate my ‘Guess The Total’ game too – if I don’t tell Drea my estimate before she begins scanning she’ll pause and “drum roll” before pressing the “total” button. We all agree a spot on call should be rewarded as most of my order comes from produce and the bulk food sections.

    But to my actually point here, I used to spend around an hour at the end of each month transferring funds between my accounts to maximize my dividends. After a couple of years I realized my minimum 12 hours per year yielded approximately $12.00/per annum. I actually earn more freelancing! I appreciate Ramsey’s method so much more. Besides, my blood runs red, white and blue – my spending habits are my business.

    Fun post, Christie!

    1. Thanks Roo!
      Guess the Total is a fun game, we need to get the word out. I, for one, am humbled by your prowess concerning produce and bulk items. My lady, you are a master player!
      Your realization on time spent/money saved reminds me of when I gave up on coupons. I used to spend Sunday evenings pouring over ads and clipping coupons for things I rarely used or didn’t need. Once I came to my senses, my evenings became much more relaxing!

      1. See there, we have a rare example of a situation where ocd tendencies are a good thing! I understand completely. I was also a super couponer, but I save more by sticking to my list, reading the sale ads and I rest up instead of driving all over town to redeem Catalina coupons. Don’t get me wrong, all that was fun and I appreciate the weekly challenges, but the more I learn to trust God to provide for all my needs, the more He actually provides. And my hands look better without the ink stains 😄

  9. Thanks to autopay the monthly bills don’t suck up any checks anymore, and I haven’t used cash for grocery shopping for quite a while. Seems like taxes are about the only thing that called for a check, and even that I’ve figured out an electronic method this year. I do still use cash for things like going out for lunch or minor general purchases, but since I retired there’s not as much of that either.

    I actually read a “how bitcoin works” explanation that I kind of understood, but mostly because I used to be a software guy and had to deal with cryptography from time to time. (It always made my head hurt.) In general I’d say stay away from it, it’s a highly unstable form of currency backed by nothing but speculation. Maybe in time it’ll stabilize, but at that stage the only people making money off of it will be the “banks”, i.e. the guys who have the servers that process the transactions. Governments will treat it like it’s a black market, ’cause that’s what it is.

    1. Okay, that the first coherent thing I read about bitcoins. I wondered if it was a nerdy version of the Dutch Tulip craze.

      I was down to two checks a month: one to my church and the other to a water service. About four months ago they both started accepting electronic “checks” and boom, no more checkbook! I don’t know how it is in Portland, but more and more in Phoenix you see signs saying “no personal checks”. The article I linked above said that in Sweden the signs often read “no cash”. I think it’ll be awhile before we see that here.

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