“Money is anything you want it to be,” says David Wolman, the author of The End of Money, in an article in Stanford magazine. This is true, but what we want money to be has to be collectively agreed upon by a society of people exchanging goods. We once traded each other for things. Coins and dollar bills made it easier for us to exchange goods because money is fungible. Now, Wolman argues, carrying around coins and dollar bills has become less efficient than moving money electronically (i.e. debit/credit cards, or using apps on a smartphone to make payments), and the world would be a better place if we got rid of tangible money altogether. In Kenya, electronic payments have proved life-changing in a world where a robbery or a natural disaster can cause a person who lives on a cash-only basis to lose everything in an instant.
Going digital has certainly made my life easier. I can directly deposit money into family members’ bank accounts without having to mail them a check, or pay a company like Western Union to wire money. I was able to use the phrase “I’ll pay you back with Paypal when I get home tonight” after splitting a hotel room with a friend who booked and paid for the reservation at a wedding I was at two weekends ago.
But, I also have a soft spot for cash, because it helps me control how much I spend when I go anywhere. Handing over your credit card and opening a tab at the bar can be a dangerous thing when you’re out with friends, and your ability to make smart decisions decreases with each drink you have, which is why I have a cash-only policy when going to bars. Until someone invents an app that mirrors the same experience I get when I hand over money, and feel that tiny pang of “loss” and allows me to limit how much I can spend at any given time, I’m happy to have access to both hard cash and digital cash right now.