My week in cash made me restless..

This was part of my employee Onboarding challenge at Aire (years later, but I am excited I finally got one).

The concept originated because Aire exists to solve the problem of getting all people access to financial services no matter what their background. We believe we should all get a chance to be on the same starting line at least when it comes to access to financial services and related tools. However cash forces one to think about what happens when digital money isnt available. It isn’t about being underbanked or unbanked it’s about being underserved.

I personally had had a stretch of living off cash when I first got to the UK about 10 years ago and no bank would give me a bank card for a few weeks. Cash became a good friend (though I was also able to use some of my credit & debit cards from my US banks but incurred crazy overseas usage fees!!).

Getting ready for this week

Most of us are so used to the habit of being able to whip out a debit / credit card that I had to first put my wallet in a different pocket to ensure I didn’t use it (which separately gave me anxiety that someone had nicked my wallet!!).

I had to then load up and get some cash. Typically I would have already been holding cash in my house (if I got paid in cash) or perhaps I would withdraw from my community bank or credit union. Anyways, I cheated and just walked over the closest ATM.

And there was a long line of people !!!! I was 11th in line. There goes 22 minutes..

Its obvious: Cash means things will take longer. Therefore a good amount of the energy in a society can be burnt up in just waiting as we coordinate procuring, moving and storing cash.

I had to repeat this later in the week a few times as well. This meant that occasionally the ATM wouldn’t even be in a working state. Look at this one:

Busted ATM..


Fortunately in London we have a good transport payment system that even those in Cash can use. Buying a ticket is a bit more expensive then getting an Oyster card, but I was able to purchase one and top up with £15 for the week (only to run short later and had to re-topup! Remember the privileges of auto-topup and paying with your bank card contactless I didn’t have).

However on one occasion over the weekend I had to move some large items and needed a car ride. Naturally most of us would just use our smartphone to request an Uber/Lyft and be off… but I couldn’t do that (more about phone data services at the end).

So, I called and booked a minicab (a pre-booked taxi). Yes. This felt very nostalgic but also totally inefficient. It took him 27 minutes to arrive and the car didn’t smell nice either. We set off on our journey and I noticed that since this traditional minicab operates in cash he had a little tip box. Strange reality that we have forgotten in the invisible payments world of Uber & Lyft. And yes, he struggled to give me back exact change from the ride !! More time wasted.

Tip box in my minicab (a prebooked cab)

Buying routine items..

During the course of the week, I had to buy lunch at work which in many cases does happen to be a cash transaction, though I do see that people prefer locations where contactless cards make the process smoother. None of that for me. Queue up and get more cash from the ATM.

Notes: Areas where I couldn’t move to cash, and benefited indirectly:

  1. I continued to use my smartphone with its data package (pay monthly / contract) and therefore benefited from the lowest data usage costs. Typically if you need to get a Pre-paid SIM (PAYG), the cash top ups are expensive when buying data and talktime.
  2. My home continued running on my previous electricity and gas tariff (annual Direct debit). These are again significantly lower as those in cash have to go topup at the corner shop to add “time” to their energy meter. Not only is it expensive on a per unit basis in cash it’s immensely time consuming and frustrating.
  3. Insurance, council tax, and various new utilities like Netflix were being automatically paid out for me through my earlier direct debit arrangements. Typically I would have paid significantly higher or just not got them as you can’t easily pay with Cash for some of these.

What it brought back for me

It was a strong re-affirmation that our work at Aire is going to be important to a lot of people. And it made me restless to keep pushing further. If some people are living in cash while the others have access to digital finance, we as society are putting people on different starting lines… this just wont allow everyone to reach their life’s potential. We are fixing that at Aire. It is hard to do, but it needs to be done.

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