California Forum

Trendy, hip cashless restaurants lock out community’s most vulnerable

This is how the government comes down on paying cash for goods, services

The Coinage Act of 1965 specifically mentions “legal tender” It states: "United States coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues."
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The Coinage Act of 1965 specifically mentions “legal tender” It states: "United States coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues."

Turns out my money isn’t “legal tender for all debts,” no matter what the Coinage Act of 1965 says. Not for a salad at certain places, or a frozen yogurt.

Cashless restaurants – which will take credit cards or debit cards, and occasionally payment apps, but no currency – are a small but growing phenomenon. The Coinage Act wasn’t aimed at them. Private businesses can do what they want in terms of accepting payment.

But this trendlet goes beyond taking choice and convenience away from customers. There’s a more odious side to it: It creates an elitist business that essentially shuts its doors to entire classes of people.

I’d vaguely heard about the hipster food spots that would only accept cards or some kind of app, but I was nonetheless taken aback last year when my attempt to offer a $10 bill for my lunch at a Tender Greens eatery was rejected. I didn’t say anything at the time. I just pulled out a credit card and went through the line.

Still, there was something unsettling about the experience of having an ages-old method of payment rejected as though I’d tried to barter some smelly old shoes for a bowl of roasted tomato soup with ciabatta croutons.

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Last week, it happened at my local frozen yogurt joint. A cup of cookies-and-cream for about $3.50, and I couldn’t just pay with cash?

“OK,” I told the hapless young man behind the counter as I rummaged in my wallet for my credit card. “But I won’t be coming back, and I’ve been a regular here.”

The poor guy seemed genuinely dismayed and offered the yogurt for free. I declined. I’m happy to pay for my purchases. I just want reasonable leeway about how that’s done.

This place is a hangout for kids after school, though it might not be for long if parents can’t just hand their offspring a few dollars to buy a treat.

Amazon has opened some brick-and-mortar cashless stores, and a Seattle Starbucks has experimented with the same idea. The list goes on, but it’s not too long – yet. Let’s hope it stays that way.

This isn’t a case of pure Luddism. In fact, young millennials are the biggest cash users. Only one in three Americans ages 18 to 24 even has a credit card, and their preferred method of payment is cash, according to a 2016 Bankrate.com survey. These are young adults who either went through financially scary times themselves during the recession or watched others do it. They’re hesitant toward credit and overspending. I’d call that smart.

No matter what kind of card or app they’re using, consumers spend more money when they’re not using cash. A 2008 academic study wonderfully titled “Monopoly Money” found that the mode of payment had a clear effect on how much we spend on a transaction.

We’re more likely to indulge in impulse purchases, and less likely to worry about the overall size of the bill when the amount appears only as same-sized little numbers on a receipt. When we can’t see our wallets thin, our cashless spending tends to occur on some theoretical plane, and only stabs us viscerally later.

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

That’s not what businesses cite as the reason to go cashless, though. Zipping a card through a machine is faster – by a few seconds, mind you – than making change. There’s no opportunity for pilferage, no balancing out the cash drawers at the end of the day, less reason for holdups. Those are legit concerns, but technology can easily find ways around most of them. As for the faster transactions – add an employee and a register. We customers might just be worth it.

Or perhaps, in the eyes of some businesses, there are customers who aren’t worth it. Not everyone can partake in the world of cashless commerce. Many people lack a bank account, and even more don’t have credit histories or the means to obtain a credit card. Some have had debt problems in the past and purposely shredded their plastic.

Lower-income Americans depend heavily on cash, according to the Pew Research Center. Among people who make less than $30,000 a year, 29 percent make all or almost all of their purchases with cash. Unsurprisingly, only a tiny proportion of those making more than $75,000 a year say the same.

In other words, if this becomes a real trend, it also becomes an ugly way to shut out a segment of society from one of the most basic parts of life: Buying something people want and can afford with their own money.

Right now, all we have is our purchasing ability to say no to companies that deny customers this choice. Yet restaurants especially are public accommodations that bear a special responsibility to all paying customers. We can do better than this.

Massachusetts has a decades-old ban on businesses refusing to take cash. New Jersey legislators passed a similar bill in February.

Despite the number of low-income residents, undocumented people and homeless in California, our Legislature has been surprisingly slow on the uptake. But it’s time to nip this elitist practice.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.
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