Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Plastic is all very well, if you play your cards right, but for me cold, hard cash will always be king

There's a time and place for Visa or Amex, the rest of the time nothing beats a roll of banknotes, writes Gail Walker

The debit card is now bigger than cash
The debit card is now bigger than cash
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

The debit card is now bigger than cash. Last year saw 13.2 billion purchases using the fantastic plastic as against 13.1 billion cash purchases. And that is just SO wrong. I don't mean in a Martin Lewis APR/transfer fees/balance transfers kind of way (which don't apply to DCs anyway), but just fundamentally wrong.

Want proof? Just consider the blind murderous rage you feel when you're in a corner shop and some bozo before you in the queue wants to pay for his Double Decker and can of Coke with a card. "£1.50! Tops!" you mutter under your breath while your mind is a white blaze of medieval torture for the totally oblivious punter in front of you.

Of course, it could be a generational "thang". Like my parents' generation and the telephone, for my contemporaries cards are only to be used for "important" things - like buying a sofa, or a really fancy blender (to be used once before disappearing under the kitchen sink, never to be seen again).

At a pinch, it could be for a meal at a fancy restaurant when you want to impress your date with your cool sophistication. See, I'm using a credit card, I'm a real adult. Honest ...

Back in the day, brandishing a Visa or American Express card was the fiscal version of those After Eights and Ferrero Rocher ads - a half waft at the glamour of lives far, far away and rarely glimpsed.

And I suspect that is at the root of my angst about using cards. There are times and there are places. Using a credit card at a computer store to buy a laptop? Fine. To buy a skinny cappuccino and a white chocolate and raspberry scone? Not so much ... (But wait, coffee is a bit of a luxury item and what about someone buying five skinny capps and five artisan scones? That wouldn't see any change from a twenty pound note, so that's okay. Is it? Is it really?

Also, let's face it, cash isn't a low down, dirty grass. I know if I were ever to get into any kind of legal hot water, my phone would shop me to the rozzers for the sheer fun of doing it. You might as well drop a tracking device into your handbag.

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And as for credit cards? Imagine the hot flush of embarrassment as you stand in the dock while the prosecuting barrister burrows through you to your very soul. "Isn't it true, Ms Walker, that in the week in question you visited Boden website on five separate occasions? And isn't it equally true, Ms Walker, that on at least one of these occasions you purchased a hideous skirt you were too ashamed to even return? I put it to you ..."

Then there is the private mortification of the online account and the monthly statement. A searing brand name looms out from the screen to remind you in black-and-white pixels that you are, at heart, a feckless spendthrift. £200 for a pair of boots! £85 on make-up!

You see, cash - in its rough and ready way - knows not only to stay shtum when it comes to the authorities, but has the good grace to pass over our mistakes and follies with tactful silence. This needs never to be discussed again ... Pundits say that cash is on the way out. They may be right, but, to quote the old sage, you never miss your water till the well runs dry.

There is something deeply satisfying with cash. There's the deep texture of the paper, the strange inks, their odd markings and, most importantly, the Queen's head. If something goes to those lengths - even dragging in the head of state to act as a guarantor - it must be pretty important.

But more to the point, cash is psychologically satisfying. Was there anything more joyful than, as a teenager, going to the ATM on a Saturday morning to draw out a wodge of cash to spend until it was - bar the odd bit of loose shrapnel - all gone?

You were like a cowboy coming to town after months on the prairie doing whatever it is cowboys do exactly. You'd worked hard (okay, you'd received the latest instalment of your university grant and you were damned if you were buying another book on Beowulf ...) and now you were going to play hard.

And then there was earning your own money. The first job I earned cold, hard cash for was helping out in a kennel and cattery - that first Friday pay day, walking home with notes in the back pocket of my jeans! All mine.

My second paid job was a summer one on the local newspaper when I was 17. I was doing it for free, for experience, but a few weeks in, I got handed several hundred pounds in cash. I walked home heady with excitement - and bought a hi-fi the next day. Cash so complemented that magical feeling. The look of it. The feel of it. Best of all, that rasp as you peeled one thick note away from the stack and proffered it to the eager shopkeeper. Keep the change! (You can't do THAT with a debit card).

A tiny bleep and few seconds of Kafkaesque terror and uncertainty while the reader chunters over whether or not to authorise not just your purchase, but your whole existence, just isn't the same. And that's before you get to the feeling of being robbed when someone swipes your chip without even asking.

Cards don't have that same sense of closure. Cash is a fireworks love affair - brief but intense, stupidly captivating and slightly scary, lighting up the night sky; plastic, on the other hand, is a sad, co-dependent relationship, dragging on endlessly without a glimmer of romance and filled with bouts of niggling passive aggression.

Cash is a thriller, or a rom-com. Plastic is a public information film. Cash is a far horizon, one last opportunity opening up. Plastic is all your chickens coming home to roost.

Cash is a throwback to your uncles at Christmas, or on your birthday, slipping you a fiver. Cash is dropping some cash onto the little bag of the guy with the guitar and the dog in hard times. Cash is the rattle of coins in the charity collector's box, people pulling together to help others.

Cash is the tip you didn't think you'd get - just for you. Cash is the last coin in your pocket - and destined for a winning ticket.

Belfast Telegraph


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