Last Saturday, I made a discovery while cleaning my garage: a Fijian two-dollar bill. I have no idea where I got it. It was a well-loved piece of currency — in the sense that is was crumpled up. The internet tells me it’s worth about one U.S. dollar. I’ve been keeping it on my desk and playing with it while I decide what to do with it.
Paper money has a certain magic to it. The crisp symmetry of a new bill implies possibility. The worn softness of a much-circulated bill, on the other hand, inspires curiosity (a curiosity some are more than willing to satisfy).
Bills have a particular aesthetic to them which comes from balancing three competing goals: making the currency attractive, rendering it hard to counterfeit, and including relevant information. This triad of needs result in complex and fascinating currency designs. I am particularly fond of Euro bills, which increase in size as they do in value. Holding a €50 bill makes me feel tremendous.
I’m not alone in this affinity for physical currency. I’ve heard (although the internet is letting me down on a reliable source to link to right now) that people are more mindful about spending when using paper money (as opposed to credit cards). The idea is that when you’re losing something tangible, you feel the loss more greatly than when you lose something abstract. Thus, people automatically take more care when spending cash.
I also know of a study which suggests that counting paper bills results in resistance to emotional and even physical pain. At least the participants in this study seem to agree with me — paper money is magical.
And not just paper money — coins also fit the bill (no pun intended, but now that I see it, it’s staying in). With various weights and metals, coins have their own unique appeal. They’re portable dispute resolvers, and the sound of their jingling is iconic. Also, they’re good for fare across the Acheron (always handy).
This is why I’m less-then-enthused about new ways to pay without physical currency. Whether it’s Apple Pay or Bitcoin, each technological solution to the problem of physical currency means the loss of all the things that make physical currency special.
Granted, sometimes forgoing the bills is preferable; I use a debit card, and I don’t feel terribly guilty about doing so. But I would hate to see paper bills and coins disappear entirely, and that seems to be the direction of the future.
I would argue, that if you say goodbye to paper bills, something important is lost. Part of this something is the aesthetic appeal of physical money. Part is the bond between money and the physical objects it can be used to purchase. And I think there’s something to be said for being able to hold the payment from your work in your own hands.
If we do abandon physical money, as I expect we will, I hope we at least recognize the good things we are giving up in the process. I worry that instead we’ll stumble blindly towards the end of bills and coins in the incontestable name of progress. Hopefully, we count the costs. And hopefully, when we do, we decide that physical money can stay around.