"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Winds of Spare Change

I've lost all concept of the value of money. At least, nothing that involves double-figures or, as I learned in second grade, when there's a need to carry the "1" to the next column. This is embarrassing, damned inconvenient and portends financial ruin. I blame the Internet.

I've conducted nearly all of my banking online for the last decade, with the effortless convenience that entails: direct deposit of paychecks; automated bill payments; scheduled transfers of funds into retirement accounts; email or text notifications when balances drop below a certain threshold. Other than for rent, or a young niece or nephew's birthday, I haven't written a check or filled out a deposit slip since I don't know when. I use a credit or debit card, or now various mobile apps, to pay for nearly all I buy -- with an increasing number of those purchases (including groceries!) made online. Consequently, I rarely *think* about money because there's no real need to. It's available on demand, upon request, with my own little economy humming along solvently in the background. Money has become more abstract the less I've need to rely on its physical presence in my wallet.

[Aside: Do you carry change around any more? Isn't it just a pain in the ass? I might keep quarters for later use in a parking meter, but generally coins get dumped into whatever heartstring-plucking plea has a can on counter. If I get back a handful of pennies sometimes I'll walk out of the store and just fling them into the street.]

I remember my very first paycheck... I'd gotten a summer job before my junior year of high school as an assistant camp counselor with a municipal recreation department. For thirty hours per week I received a wage of $45, before taxes. We didn't get paid in person; the town mailed checks out to its seasonal employees. I came home from work one Friday afternoon, two weeks into the gig, and there was my first paycheck awaiting me. I... was... RICH! Excitedly, I asked my mother if I could borrow the car so I could rush... er, drive responsibly to the bank to cash it. While the bank lobby was closed, the drive-through was open a few extra hours late Friday afternoons for just such a need. I drove around to the side of the building with the lanes and machinery and told the teller over a tinny speaker what I wanted to do. She flipped a switch from behind her window, I heard a loud WHOOSH! and a few seconds later a small hatch slid open on the rectangular structure next to the car. Once open, I saw a cylindrical object resting in a tray. I now know that I was supposed to place my check inside the cylindrical object, lay it back on the tray, press the button and it would be delivered back to her with my net take returned to me via that same cylindrical object. However, being naive at that age about pretty much everything relating to money and banking and utterly lacking in common sense (some things haven't changed) -- I thought the cylinder was merely a paperweight under which I should place my check while it made its way inside the bank. I laid my check on the tray, placed the cylinder atop it and pressed the button to deliver it back to the teller. The small hatch closed and the system made another WHOOSH! I anxiously awaited my cash... and waited... The teller came back on the speaker a few minutes later and asked me to send my check over; I said I already had. "Where did you put it?" she asked. "Under the cylindrical paperweight," I replied. There was a long silence, and then she exhaled an "Oh-h-h..." Needless to say, my check was now lost in the bowels of the pneumatic system and I was shit out of luck (and $37.65, after taxes). I had to request a duplicate check, which I didn't get until the job -- and summer -- were well over.

That was perhaps the first and last time money ever had a such visceral, dynamic impact on me. Ironically, I didn't get to handle any of it then, just as I handle very little of it now.

But I digress. My theory is the lack of tangibility removes any sense of decimalization regarding money. Yes, I just made up two words in that last sentence. If I pull three tens out of my wallet to pay for a meal, I "feel" that's $30 and intuit that another $5 or $6 are required for a tip. I can see the demarcations on the various bills and recognize the relationship among a ten and a five and a one. But if I hand over my credit card and get back a strip of paper with "30" printed on it, that's an abstract concept; a cardinal number but not actual "money", and I can't connect that display to what I should then be writing in to acknowledge good service. Plus, regardless of what I scribble, I'm now responsible for declaring my version of the total. I've got to add the tip and the tax and the food and beverage amounts all together: "Uh, carry the '1', and..." I'm just as likely to come up with something random than the actual correct sum. That's why most of the mobile payment apps have tip generators built right into them. I use one that is popular in our area; it generates a QR code (it's a mysterious thing that looks like a needlepoint sampler sewn by a collective of cataract patients) that displays on my phone and I then hold in front of a specialized scanner to automagically debit my bank account for the amount due. If I want to include a tip, there's a sliding scale from 0 - 50% and the app does the math for me, adding it to the total by reformatting the QR code. The very first time I used the app I felt very tech-savvy... not realizing the tip slider was set at the maximum level. I thought the server gave me a hug and a kiss because I was a such a charming patron; I now realize he may have had a different motivation for that reaction.

I've become a more generous tipper as I've gotten older, and perhaps by now you realize it's not due to increasing magnanimity but because I: a) can't figure out how much to leave, b) can't properly utilize my phone apps, or c) still think it might lead to a quick make-out session with a member of the waitstaff. This last explanation tends to happen when the tab includes significant expenditures for alcohol. In this instance the math does become visceral, regardless of payment option, since I become the "1" that has to be carried -- out of the bar.

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