I Gave Up My Debit Card For A Month — & This Is What Happened

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
I never carry cash. Never. I’m a firm believer that plastic is perfect.

If I’m splitting dinner with friends, I drop my debit card in the center of the table like I’m dropping a mic. If it’s a $2 pack of gum at CVS, I swipe without a second thought.

Believe it or not, it’s not really that hard to live a paper-free life. In New York City, not that many venues are cash-only. Venmo, PayPal, and other money-sharing apps make it easy to pay back a friend. And Apple Pay has even convinced me to leave my wallet at home and run to grab coffee or groceries.

In my humble opinion, the future is cash-free.

and Denmark are both toying with the idea of a paperless economy. And that made me wonder: Is the world becoming a harder place to live for people who are pro-cash?

So I decided to live the entire month of February without using my credit or debit cards. I turned off Venmo and didn’t rely on Apple Pay. I paid for everything with cash (and I was determined not to take out money from anywhere other than my bank’s ATMs). There were some exceptions — I didn’t change up the electronic systems I use to pay rent and other monthly bills. But the rest of the time, I was going to rely solely on the cash in my wallet.

I thought it would be easy. Instead, the month was frustrating — and not just for me, but also for friends, cashiers, delivery people, and anyone on Manhattan island who was forced to wait behind me in line as I counted out the change in my wallet. Here are a few things I learned while living without plastic for a month.

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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
1. I Always Felt Broke

It turns out I didn’t save money by going cash-only. But it did affect my relationship with my money. Namely, it gave me anxiety.

I was always worried that I wouldn’t have enough money. With a debit card, you just swipe — and as long as you know your overall balance, you’re in the clear. It’s different with cash. I don’t mind walking around with $5,000 in my checking account, but I do mind walking around with more than $200 in cash in my wallet.

I don’t want to say that I was haunted with cash paranoia, but I was nervous. If I didn’t have time to hit up an ATM before grabbing dinner or drinks, I felt a bit apprehensive about buying too much. Do I ask my friends to cover me, and get them back next time? Do I run out to an ATM really quickly? I did both on at least two occasions.

I always felt like cash was slipping through my fingers. I’d have dinner and a drink, then buy some shampoo and body wash at Duane Reade, then put some money on my Metro card, and boom! Where the hell did all my money go?!

At first, I thought I could live on $100 a week, which my friends scoffed at. But I had to pay for my laundry, repair my boots, paint my bedroom walls, and buy a new laundry basket since my old one broke. Those expenses alone swallowed up my weekly allowance in just two days.

I started to realize that maybe my money-management skills weren’t as good as I had previously thought. Maybe that's because I'd never really had to focus on how much I was spending? With plastic, you swipe and pray that your balance is okay later. With cash, you know immediately when it’s gone.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
2. I Became The Most Hated Person In Line

On my very first day of using cash only, I ran to Whole Foods after work to buy some essentials. At the checkout, I let my cell phone hover above the Apple Pay module. Just when the card popped up on my iPhone, I remembered — I can’t use my card! So I waited for the cashier to pack my groceries, and paid her in cash. It only took a little longer than a quick swipe, but it was long enough for the woman behind me in line to get annoyed. “Really?” I heard her say under her breath while I was fishing for a $5 bill.

Paying in cash made me super-aware that I live most of my life standing in lines. Never had I heard more huffs and sighs, or seen more eye rolls, than the month I stopped using plastic. “Sorry” became my new catchphrase. I found myself apologizing to cashiers constantly. I especially felt bothersome when I had to count change.

“I have 23 cents,” I’d say while handing over $20. Sorry people in line, but I can’t bear to end up with 77 cents! That’s crazy talk. The worst part: trying to count coins in a fast-paced takeout line with 10 hungry New Yorkers on their short lunch breaks waiting behind me. Talk about hangry.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
3. Reactions To My Cash Use Were Mixed

I originally assumed that my friends would be frustrated with my cash-only life. I was wrong. Sure, we had a few issues when the check came after a big brunch. The first question was always, “Can you just Venmo me?”

No Venmo and no credit cards meant we ended up playing the cash shuffle: I hand someone my cash, and the group then collectively decides if: (a) We all pay in cash, which usually never happened because none of them carry cash; (b) One person takes the cash and pays for my brunch with their debit card, which sucked because who wants to carry cash on them?; or (c) I just promised to pay for them another time, which happened about 70% of the time.

It became even more difficult when dealing with total strangers.

I couldn’t buy movie tickets at theater vending machines anymore, which meant more lines. The cashier behind the window watched me count out $15.50 in ones and quarters with amusement and confusion. When I ordered sushi on Seamless, the delivery man stood in my doorway and said, “You’re paying in cash,” like it was a crime, and huffed while getting my change. While buying cotton swabs at Duane Reade, I didn’t want to break a $20, so I counted bills and coins. After I started to walk away, the cashier shouted, “Next customer — paying in debit or credit ONLY!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
4. I Had To Cheat

At first, I merely skirted the rules. I quickly grew tired of paying Seamless delivery people in cash, and judging by their expressions, they were tired of it too. So I asked my friend to order both of our meals, and I’d pay her in cash later. Technically, cheating. But not really, right?

I flat-out cheated when I had to buy shoes for my friend’s wedding, in which I’m a bridesmaid. We’re all wearing matching espadrilles, so I needed to snag shoes before they ran out of my size. They’re only available online — which meant it was time to break out the plastic again. That was the first time I held my card in two weeks.

I cheated a final time when I went to purchase my bridesmaid’s dress. I knew the size, style, and color I needed. And there was a 20%-off sale at David’s Bridal. Since I didn’t like walking around with more than $200 in cash, I didn’t have enough to buy the $199.95 dress. So I used my credit card. It was the first time I got to swipe my card in weeks — and it felt so good.

It was in that moment — when I was hit with plastic-swipe euphoria — that I realized I really missed my debit card, and I don’t want to live without it. Not just because I prefer the ease of swiping. But because everyone around me is just as addicted to QuickPay, Apple Pay, Venmo, and debit cards.

I’d spent a month paying for items with cash, and it made me feel like a woman from another time. Another much sadder time. For the sake of my sanity — and the sanity of those around me, especially that one asshole at Duane Reade — I was relieved to return to my credit card-swiping ways. If cash-free is the future, it looks pretty bright to me.

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