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personal finance

Don’t give up on cash yet: there’s a value to seeing what you spend | Oliver Burkeman

The other day, New York’s city council voted to make it illegal for businesses to refuse payment in cash. The move was mainly intended to benefit people without bank accounts or credit cards. But the rest of us have reason to be grateful, too – because study after study shows we spend more when we pay with a card. (Up to 100% more, in the case of one experiment involving pricey tickets for sporting events.) Certain wires get crossed in our brains, it seems, and we confuse how easy it is to pay for something with how easily we can afford it.

Part of the explanation is that credit cards postpone the unpleasantness of actually paying until the bill arrives. But research on debit cards and digital wallets points to the more intriguing phenomenon of psychological distance: cash just feels more immediately real, and losing it feels more painful. Of course, coins and notes are “virtual”, too, in the sense that they only have any value thanks to a web of laws and agreements. But they retain a crucial component of concreteness, demonstrated most clearly by the fact that if you set fire to a £20 note, you really are £20 worse off.

I suspect many of us still implicitly interact with cash as though a well-dressed bank manager is sitting on the other side of the cashpoint, hurrying off to fetch your money from a little box with your name on it. It’s much harder to feel so possessive about digital information. And contactless payment? That barely seems more real than simply thinking about making a purchase.

Worryingly, I know of no research to suggest that this unreality effect is diminishing as we grow accustomed to a cashless world. Instead, frictionless payment is embedding itself as a prime case of what has been called “the tyranny of convenience”, whereby technology makes it easier to get what we desire (the fancy new headphones I’ve been coveting, say) but harder to be the kind of person we would rather be (who can manage without fancy headphones). In the useful phrase of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, it undermines our capacity to “want what we want to want”.

A slightly more down-to-earth way of putting it is just that we’re each a bundle of different, often contradictory desires – and it’s no surprise, nor necessarily even cause for condemnation, that businesses focus on stimulating the ones they can milk for profit.

This does mean that, as technology continues to smooth our daily lives, we shall increasingly need to develop a taste for friction, for discovering that very particular, bracing sort of pleasure that comes from embracing minor discomforts – like making yourself dig through your bag for some actual cash – rather than always seeking to eliminate them.

This is a close cousin of another taste that is equally worth developing: the miserly joy of not buying something that would have made you happy – because it makes you even happier to deny some corporation the chance to relieve you of your money.

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Amanda Lang makes the case against the too effortless life in her 2017 book The Beauty of Discomfort: How What We Avoid Is What We Need.


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