Hopefully, some of the things we’ve started to do in a post-COVID19 world will be here to stay. Washing our hands was always a good idea, we just needed a really good reason to remind ourselves to do it regularly. Better cleaning of public areas is another trend that I hope continues to happen long after the crisis has passed.
However, there are also some things we took for granted before the global pandemic that might not be able to continue in the same form now that people are more germophobic than before.
There’s one thing we carry with us every day that’s covered with bacteria and viruses and we don’t even think about it. Cash.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone. In 2017 an article in MarketWatch let us know just how unclean the US money supply was.
So what makes this money so gross? Well, our cash is made from a blend of cotton and linen, and these fibrous crevices are great places for bacteria to grow. Paper-based money can transfer live flu viruses for up to 17 days, and we rarely think to wash our hands before or after handling money. That’s one reason why countries like Canada and the U.K. switched to plastic-based banknotes in 2013 and 2016, respectively: They carry less bacteria, and you can wipe them clean.
“Bacteria can live for weeks on bills, especially considered where they’re kept: rolled up in a pants pocket, or folded into a wallet or purse, and sequestered in a nice, warm dark place where bacteria likes to grow,” Dr. Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU School of Medicine, told Moneyish.
Here are the five most common substances found on bills they tested:
- Bacteria (including MRSA)
- Dog Spit (but also horse saliva)
- Food Particles
The suggestions at the time sound very familiar, you think?
“Wash your hands after handling money, and before you touch your face, your mouth, your eyes and your nose, or any abrasions on your skin, or before eating and drinking,” suggested Dr. Tierno. “The idea is to remember it’s dirty. You wouldn’t put money in your mouth, so don’t put your hands near your mouth after touching it.”
Better studies about COVID-19 and how long it can survive on dollar bills will eventually come out, but the consensus right now is that it can last at least several hours.
With people being more conscious about everything they touch, I don’t see many people reaching into their wallets to pull out cash. Not to mention, cashiers don’t want to handle your money, particularly if you choose to carry it in non-traditional places.
Can You Go Cashless?
For a while last year, I tried to see how long I could go without needing physical currency. Not so much for an experiment, but because I was too lazy to go to an ATM. I was amazed at how I could use a card for payments at places I’d think would be cash only. Vending machines and parking meters both accepted contactless payments or allowed you to pay with a card.
I went for three weeks without touching the two dollar bills I had left in my wallet. The only reason I needed to eventually get cash was that we were leaving on a trip and I needed tip money.
Problems Going Cashless
There are also socio-economic questions when it comes to going to a cashless society. Having a way to pay without cash requires access to a bank or some type of financial instrument. Lower-income individuals or the elderly may not have a smart-device or credit or debit card to make cashless payments.
In 2019-20, some stores in New York City started to go cashless but the City Council passed a law banning the practice. At the time, inequality was the reason for stopping a business from going cashless.
But critics of cashless businesses say they discriminate against people who lack bank accounts and credit cards, while also raising the specter of hackers stealing personal data tied to digital transactions.
The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs said last year that one in nine New York households did not have a bank account, and that one in five were “underbanked,” meaning they had a checking or savings account but relied on something other than a bank to cash a check. Bronx households, the agency said, were around twice as likely not to have a bank account.
So while there may be a desire within a certain percentage of the population that would like to go to a cashless or even a contactless payment world, for now, there are barriers to making that a universally accepted system.
What I think is we’ll see is a greater number of people move away from cash. Whether it’s by inserting or tapping a debit or credit card or by using a smart device like a watch or phone, people who don’t want to handle money generally will not need to. Even if it’s just paying back someone you owe money or splitting a bill, technology is making it easy to handle those transactions without exchanging cash.
Cash will stay around because there’s no suitable alternative for someone who doesn’t want, or is unable to get a different type of payment.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary