We don’t speak cash here

August 12, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 10/11/08 Forte

Once was a time you could walk into any business with a wallet or purse full of cash and be a valued customer. Imagine that.

Increasingly, cash is becoming as unwelcome in the marketplace as a bad rash in a hot tub. It costs companies time and money to handle it, and it’s the easiest of all money forms to steal. So no wonder accounting departments have been pushing corporations away from cash for years.

But now our own government is anti-cash, too?

The latest to jump on this cashless trend is Passport Canada, the government agency that hands out those little blue books that terrorists are always trying to steal. In late June, it quietly passed a new rule: no cash allowed.

Instead, citizens will have to pay their passport fees with debit or credit cards, cheques or money orders. Passport Canada said carrying cash made its offices a risk for theft, and it cost too much money to deposit the paper money.

Since most Canadians were already paying for their passports electronically, they hardly noticed the change. Others quietly fumed, but didn’t do anything about it.

Not everyone took it in stride, though. When Cambridge artist Joe Forte was turned away from the Kitchener passport office this week, he marched straight to his local newspaper and declared: It ain’t right.

With his long white beard, faded Key West T-shirt and technicolour glasses, Forte might look like some kind of hippie Father Time. But he’s raising a great point. Of all the places that accept government-issued currency, shouldn’t government offices be at the top of that list?

And why should someone who prefers to pay in cash be required to pay extra fees—such as getting a bank’s money order—that someone with a credit card doesn’t?

“I said ‘what do you mean you don’t accept cash?’” he told me. “It’s supposed to be the legal tender of this country. And they (the government) issued it.”

The private sector has been moving away from cash for years. Gas stations, fast-food joints and other retail outlets are always trying to get us to use ‘quick pay’ keys or cards that you scan or tap. We can use cellphones to pay parking meters and drive through toll booths without slowing down. We can swipe, wand and type our way through purchases without ever counting out any money.

It’s the way of the future, we’re told. Paper money and coins? Pffft. Today, we prefer not to touch our money at all. It’s tallied in silicon chips and on banking networks, never to cross our hands or go anywhere near our wallets.

Which makes sense – to a point. There are plenty of transactions that are made simpler without exchanging cash.

But what Passport Canada seems to care little about is that there are people who prefer cash. They don’t see paper money as dirty, suspicious, untraceable. They see it as tangible, manageable, real.

For some, using cash is a counter argument to our uber-spending culture that preaches buy it now, pay for it later. Don’t have the money? Don’t worry. Visa will pick up the tab, and we’ll sort it out some other time.

And that’s exactly the kind of thinking that has got far too many people on the treadmill of credit-card debt. Using money that you don’t have to get the things you want right now. It’s great for banks, not so great for people.

So what if some people want to pay for their passport with cash? Let them.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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