I Spent Two Weeks Using Only Cash — Here's What I Learned

Illustrated by Paola Delucca
I’ve always considered myself fairly financially conscious. Well, financially conscious in the sense that I’m conscious of all the “golden rules of finance” — don’t spend money you don’t have, watch your daily spending, save whenever you can — I just don’t do a great job of actually following them. Let’s think of it as operating on a “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” policy: As long as I don’t look at my bank account, it’s like I’m not even spending money, right? (Wrong.)
Somehow, I made this system work for most of my young life. But when I moved to New York City this spring and suddenly found myself face-to-face with Manhattan’s infamously steep prices ($15 for a vodka-cranberry?! Really?!), the years of unsolicited lectures from my (very financially savvy) parents on the importance of watching your spending didn’t seem so annoying. Oh, and I had just started interning with the Work & Money team at Refinery29. Yeah, the irony wasn’t lost on me, either. Suffice it to say, it was time to get my act together.
I resolved to boldly go where other more financially aware women have gone before: I would try using cash for two weeks to see if I could finally save money. I based my model on a blog post by Ramit Sethi, personal finance advisor and author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. He claims that by using only cash for two weeks, you can save up to 18% of your usual two-week spending.
Hypothetically, this shouldn’t be too hard. As a college student doing a three-month-long internship in New York, I don’t have many financial responsibilities. I’m extraordinarily lucky and privileged in that I received a $1,250 stipend from my school, and my parents pay my monthly rent at a women’s boarding house, which includes breakfast and dinner each day. To top it off, my parents generously contributed an extra $750 to my three-month budget and set up a credit card in my name for “emergencies,” which I apparently have a lot of due to how quickly I’ve been running through my available credit.
So partially for the sake of this meager budget, but mostly to satisfy my competitive streak, I chose to take my experiment one step further. Sethi says using only cash can save you 18% of your two-week spending. I decided to subtract 18% from just one week’s worth of spending, and make that number last for two weeks.That’s right, folks: I, the super spender, would try to make 18% less than what I usually spent in just a week last for an entire 14 days.
Would it work? Would I be able to survive on a cash-only, two-week, super-tight budget? Or would I cave to the pressure of the trusty debit card in my pocket? And most importantly, would this change how I spend forever?
Ahead, I’ve compiled the four pros and two cons I learned on my cash-only roller coaster ride of an experiment, interspersed with some real-world advice from certified financial planners much more knowledgeable than myself.