I Paid for Everything with Cash for a Week, and Here’s What I Learned
True story: It can be a little too easy to swipe, swipe when we’re going about our day. But what impact does that have on our weekly budget? I spent the last seven days paying in cash only—as best I could—to see exactly how things netted out.
Day 1: Saturday
8:15 a.m. I went to the farmers’ market to buy produce—a weekly trip I make with my husband and seven-month-old son. This wasn’t too much of a change since most vendors there require cash. We hit up the ATM en route, then picked up the usual: bread, a $5 bouquet of pre-cut flowers and then whatever ingredients my husband felt excited about for dinner. (Today that included heirloom tomatoes and basil for a summer salad.) Total Spent: $28
10 a.m. A belated birthday gift from my husband: He treated me for a massage at a local spa. Still, he didn’t pick up a gift card or anything, and we have a joint bank account, so I coughed up the cash. Counting out $20 bills to pay at the counter made this a tougher pill to swallow, budget-wise. Total Spent: $120
12 p.m. After my massage, I met my husband and baby for lunch out—another treat. We went to a local café and each got a BLT. Oh, and an insanely overpriced chocolate chip cookie. Oops. We still had cash from the withdrawal I made that a.m. for the farmers’ market. Total Spent: $33
2:30 p.m. One other belated birthday treat I’d promised myself: An Arnold Palmer from a café I love on my Brooklyn block. It normally costs $4.50, but I had a punch card that earned me a free drink—and a large one at that. This felt like a win. Total Spent: $0
4:40 p.m. For dinner that night, we were eating in, so we popped by the butcher to pick up chicken. (The recipe plan was grilled chicken avocado sandwiches.) We also had to go to our local cheese shop for brioche buns. We had the avocado at home. The cash restriction tacked a mini-detour onto our trip since we were fresh out following our a.m. withdrawal. Luckily, it’s New York, and there are ATMs everywhere. We also have a bank that reimburses any fees. Total Spent: $17
Day 1 Lessons Learned: In a world where I’m only paying with cash, I’d be all about minimizing trips to the ATM—aka embracing better budgeting where I take out exactly what I need to cover the costs of the day. I was also a bit surprised by the guilt I experienced with each detour to make a withdrawal.
Day 2: Sunday
11:46 a.m. We were running late for my son’s swim lesson and had to splurge on an Uber into Manhattan. (The trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan are the *worst* on the weekends.) The only problem? There’s actually zero way to pay in cash. Still, I noted the expense—and also tried to comparison shop between Lyft (and Juno, too) to find the best rate. Total Spent: $13.87
12:37 p.m. I realized right before swim class—or rather, my husband realized given my hangry signs—that I hadn’t really eaten all morning. I’d also breastfed my son approximately four times. There’s a McDonald’s next to his lesson, so I dashed in and dipped into the cash we’d taken out the previous day for groceries for a hamburger, fries and a Diet Coke. Ah, much better. Total Spent: $5
1:05 p.m. Last minute discovery: My son outgrew his swim diaper. He can only wear the type sold by the place we go for classes, so we had to shell out an additional $12. Luckily, we still had some of that grocery cash from our trip the night before (we took out $40, phew) so we were covered—aka no trip to the ATM required. Total Spent: $12
2 p.m. No longer in a rush, we took the subway home using our unlimited metro cards. Total Spent: $0
7 p.m. I had a work event tonight in the city and, again, there was no train option. (Subway rerouting gave me an arrival time well after the event’s start. I also couldn’t leave any earlier since I was covering bedtime for my son.) This meant another cashless Uber ride. Total Spent: $21
9 p.m. At this point, I was just being tired and lazy and while I *had* a train option, I opted not to use it and instead paid for an Uber Pool so I could get home and go to bed. Total Spent: $6
Day 2 Lessons Learned: Beware those cashless purchases. In one day, I spent close to $41 on transportation without batting an eye. To be fair, can you really put a price on convenience? (Ask my mom and she’ll tell you: Yes, you can.)
Day 3: Monday
7 a.m. We have a vacation coming up, so we needed to buy a couple of Amazon items—diapers, a stroller bag—to help us pack and prep. Just like Uber, this was another cashless moment. Still, we had budgeted for the diapers—a cool $50 for 150—and miscellaneous travel costs. Total Spent: $210
1 p.m. The weekend got away from me, and I didn’t make it to Trader Joe’s to pick up groceries for lunch. This meant popping out for food with a colleague at a local market near the office. Typically, I hit up the salad bar and self-serve, but this time I was more cognizant of the weight of my items since I knew I’d be paying in cash. I also had to find a nearby ATM—not the easiest when the area you’re in is up-and-coming (read: mostly under construction). I had to detour five minutes out of my way to a bodega nearby and took out $80 just in case. Total Spent: $6.75
4 p.m. I left work early since I’d be covering the Emmys tonight and popped into my neighborhood Trader Joe’s. Not only did I stock up on lunches for the week (I’m a huge fan of their $4.99 pre-made salads), but I picked up some dinner stuff, too. My husband and I love their butternut squash ravioli and serve it with TJ’s jarred pesto. Yum. Total Spent: $54
Day 3 Lessons Learned: Hunting down an ATM made me realize how much I lean on my debit card for purchases large and small. It was a pain to have to find one last minute—another reason to set a cash budget for the week or at least make an effort to always tuck a $20 out of sight in my wallet for emergencies. Also, I’m realizing that I need to pay closer attention to cashless spending—ahem, Amazon. Case in point: I actually think I may have been able to spend less on diapers at my local CVS thanks to a $10 coupon. The ease of purchasing with Amazon meant I didn’t do any comparison shopping.
Day 4: Tuesday
6 p.m. I needed just a couple of items for my upcoming vacation, so I popped to Madewell after work for a quick peek. One sweatshirt, one sweater and one striped top later, I walked out the door. The good news? Everything was on sale for 25 percent off. But, ugh, another ATM trip was required. Total Spent: $145
Day 4 Lessons Learned: Thanks to my Trader Joe’s salads, today was a pretty light spend. Still, it’s the bigger purchases—my massage, new clothes—that make you do a double take when you pay in cash. For example, the 25 percent off coupon at Madewell meant that I almost bought a pair of shoes, too. But taking out more than $250 unplanned at the ATM? Nah, not tonight.
Day 5: Wednesday
8:30 a.m. I had a breakfast before work, but my friend was running really late to a morning meeting—and our waiter had too many tables and was a touch impatient—so to make things easy, we just threw our cards down for an even split. Total Spent: $23
5:30 p.m. I shared a cab home with a coworker who lives near me—we had a bunch of bags and this saved us the subway schlepp. Still, our office is a hike from our apartments, so even splitting the cost wasn’t exactly cheap. But, per my earlier point, convenience counts. It was also another cashless moment. Total Spent: $25
Day 5 Lessons Learned: It’s amazing the ease of cashless spending! I also wonder if I had paid in cash for breakfast, would my friend and I still have made it an even Steven split? Food for thought.
Day 6: Thursday
7:30 p.m. Today was almost a zero spend except for the mozzarella I picked up at the supermarket to go with our heirloom tomato salad for dinner. (We pulled chicken out of the freezer this a.m. to grill and serve with it.) Total Spent: $8
Day 6 Lessons Learned: It saves so much time (and money) to only have to pick up a single ingredient for dinner and shop the freezer, too. From an emotional perspective, too, it felt like a mini-win to have a day where I spent almost no cash.
Day 7: Friday
10 a.m. I have an eye doctor appointment and—after the copay—it turns out that my prescription has changed, and I need to buy a new six-month supply of contacts. I actually had cash on me since my dinner plans included a cash-only restaurant, so I found myself, again, counting my $20s. Definitely a financial gut check. I should mention I took the subway both ways to save. No Ubers this time. Total Spent: $135
8 p.m. Back to the ATM I went—this time to replenish the cash I’d taken out for date night with friends. We went to a local pizza spot and even after drinking all the wine, the cost for the two of us was $91. But that didn’t count the Ubers to and from the restaurant—an essential since we had a babysitter and were trying to maximize time out. Total Spent: $105
11 p.m. Uh oh, we typically Venmo the babysitter—another cashless transaction. I forgot to get out enough cash to cover that cost, too, and it was already late, so we stuck with this payment method. Damn, though, thinking about paying for my whole night out in cash makes me reconsider the whole thing. That said, we budgeted for it and, in my opinion, good pizza + good friends is always worth the spend. Total Spent: $72
Day 7 Lessons Learned: Paying in cash only is a dramatic eye opener. Doing it for one week enlightened me to two things: 1) Cashless purchases can really do a number on your budget if you don’t pay close attention to them and 2) The inconvenience of paying only in cash. (Debit cards are the best, no?)