Slick Willie Sutton, the 1930’s bandit who favored elaborate disguises, was once asked why he robbed banks. He famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”
Oh, how times have changed. The other day my daughter, Stephanie, walked into the Chase branch in South San Francisco, seeking 16 quarters to do her laundry. She was informed by the teller: “We don’t handle cash anymore.”
Wait, what? A bank that refuses to give or take… money?
I phoned the branch seeking clarification. “We have all the services other branches offer,” the manager explained, “except we don’t handle coins or bills. No cash.”
The nation was moving away from cash even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 added to the jitters, especially when the CDC issued guidance last year urging merchants to use “touchless payment options.” Seems some businesses actually prefer it that way.
Major retailers — from Starbucks to Whole Foods — have experimented with no-cash retailing. In response, some municipalities and a few states have passed laws making it illegal to refuse cash. Oddly, there is no federal law requiring businesses to accept cash, even though the Coinage Act of 1965 states: “United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.”
Try telling that to a flight attendant who will only accept a credit card for a Coors Light.
Aside from the fact that refusing cash discriminates against those who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards, the muddle about whether or not to deal with currency makes it difficult for all of us.
Motorists know this all too well. Modern parking meters won’t accept coins, only credit or debit cards. Many bridges and highways no longer take cash for tolls. At the same time, most gas stations want you to pay with cash and will jack up the price if you prefer to use a credit card.
On a recent business trip I rented a car from Avis that did not have an E-ZPass toll device. On the thruway I encountered a toll plaza that would not accept cash for a $2.22 charge. New York State billed Avis and a few weeks later Avis billed me, adding its own $5.95 “Convenience Fee,” for a total of $8.17. This I paid by credit card.
I still stop and pick up coins on the sidewalk, an act my mother said brings good luck. I toss them into a large jar, which for more than a decade I’ve been planning to take to a bank. I suppose that’s still possible somewhere, although clearly not at the Chase branch in South San Francisco.