Where has the cash gone?

Image by LUEK

From cash to Bankcard to unavoidable bank fees, Angelo Pricolo takes a look at the way Aussies pay… and how pharmacists have had to respond

The days of taking thousands of dollars in cash to the bank are gone. So I ask myself: where has all that cash gone? I mean, cash is still king isn’t it?

Upon reflection and doing some simple arithmetic, I am astounded at just how much cash I have counted over the last 30 years in pharmacy. Like many others, I have literally counted and re-counted millions of dollars, enough to qualify me for the Bank Teller’s Conference and Annual Ball. I imagine the Bank Teller’s Ball would be quite the gala event!

But the credit card has revolutionised banking and the retail sector.

Plastic fantastic money was originally a novelty and there were many skeptics. “I use cash so I know how much I’ve spent!” The card was too easy, too risky and a bit futuristic for some.

Who would have foreseen the current trend where many businesses only accept credit cards, accelerated of course by the virus unleashing havoc? A complete 180-degree turnaround from the businesses that once insisted on cash only, either avoiding the banks or the taxman or both.

Now we have seen the credit card already superseded in some circles with smart phones, watches and rings used to feed the hungry machine. Also chips inserted under the skin; and I recently saw an advertisement where a chip was attached to a nail seemingly as part of the painting and decoration process.

It was carefully positioned by a beautician and would confer stylish tapping rights to the designated nail on any standard eftpos machine.

The wheels are in motion, I’m sure, for the next phase in our money moving systems (many we cannot even imagine yet) but most of us are still card carriers and will be for a while.

There was a feeble fightback from the cash-loving proprietors with the appearance of the ‘$10 card minimum’ sign, perched discreetly on the counter. In some of the affluent Australian suburbs it even read ‘$20 minimum purchase on the credit card’.

This has all but been eliminated now as cardholders flaunt their victory by waving away $1 purchases with a nonchalant air. Having bypassed the pin number for just the expensive purchases and discarded the whole idea of a signature, the credit card reigns supreme in all of its ‘no fuss’ glory.

It was Diners’ Club, Inc., that introduced the first universal credit card, which could be used at a variety of establishments, in 1950. Then the American Express Company launched their travel and entertainment card in 1958.

Credit cards were launched in Australia in 1974. The new player was called the Bankcard® and it was available through nine different banks. A status symbol, an essential item, it blasted onto the scene.

I’m sure many remember the old manual imprinters that were used to process these new fancy cards. They made that distinctive noise that quickly entered the vernacular as a symbol of spending and could be used in self-defense when a forceful blow was required from heavy blunt object.

Some operators were skillful and could handle the ‘machine’ the way a gun-slinging cowboy can spin his weapon on the trigger finger. This was impressive to watch and an efficient way to transmit money when the device was confidently loaded and fired.

But new staff members occasionally fell to the perils of the sliding machines. It was a skill indeed to deposit the card in its allocated slot, place the filled-out form carefully over the top without creasing it and then pull the trigger! Ka-ching. Thanks for coming.

As the cards began their journey to becoming a ubiquitous item in the Australian wallet, we started to confirm those initial hesitant consumers’ worst fears… fraud. “I knew it! See!”

So was born the authorisation process, where merchants were required to telephone, read out the lengthy unique card number and await verbal confirmation that the card was not stolen and the limit had not been exceeded.

The banks started producing a hard copy of stolen card numbers that vigilant merchants were required to check before processing a transaction. The growing list was becoming increasingly difficult and time-consuming to peruse in a bid to guard against scheming customers.

It was all about putting the onus and responsibility onto the merchant and protecting the banks investment. A tedious process we all despised, but nevertheless, anything to secure the sale.

We were seeing the beginning of a trend that has seen till cash erode progressively to the point where we make a fuss when we see a banknote. “Haven’t seen one of those for a while. Oh you want to pay cash?”

I remember going to the bank at least twice a week to avoid worrying about how much money was in the safe. And insurance policies stipulated indemnity only to a reasonable limit. This forced us to spend many hours in bank queues and many more preparing the cash just how the teller liked it folded and organized. Not to mention writing up the cheques!

Pharmacies were warned not to be routine with their banking habits as they were soft targets for would be robbers. Visit different banks at random times, even park in different spots to avoid the plotting thief.

Then on the way back from the bank there was the issue of carting hundreds of dollars of coins, often extremely heavy (especially the 50 cent pieces!) to keep the tills well stocked. Public holidays were a nightmare as we struggled to estimate how much change was needed and then where to keep it all!

At one stage, I think after seeing Al Pacino in Scarface for the tenth time, I decided to invest in one of those machines that counted the notes for me. It was an indulgence that I did not need but couldn’t resist. That noise as notes were scurried through the insatiable inlet provided a dopamine squirt that ended with a warm fuzzy serotonin blanket I can still feel as I write today.

So where has all this cash gone? Surely the bank executives haven’t been using it to start their fires in the cast iron cheminee fireplace this winter?

Could the cash have been incinerated in a covert operation at bonfires to celebrate the Winter Solstice? In Spain called Las Hogueras, now replicated around the world, these bonfires on the shortest day of the year can protect from disease in the coming year. Wish we knew that before COVID!

But what can protect the merchant from the bank fees that cash was able to avoid although the credit and debit card cannot? Like the GST for government coffers, the silent fee extracted from every card transaction has buffed bank stocks like the new model Portofino M Ferrari on a showroom floor.

As we run our small businesses, conscious of all our expenses and vigilant to maintain a going concern, we have acquired a new partner, a silent bank partner that reaps the benefit of our hard work.

Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

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