Ann Mintz’s Cleaner Cash with a Dollop of Disinfectant
Step 1: Spread bills flat on a clean baking sheet, as you would seasonal vegetables.
Step 2: Spray generously with any sanitizer.
Step 3: Let sit for two days.
Voilà! Fresh semi-laundered money.
Then her sanitized currency sat even longer, like it was counterfeit tender. “It took us months to get through it,” says Mintz, a professional fundraiser in Philadelphia. During the pandemic, she’s gone to the automated teller machine precisely once to deposit a check, not to withdraw more cash because . . . why?
“Given the choice, I would rather go back to using cash for small transactions,” Mintz says. “It helps people who are underbanked, who don’t have debit and credit cards.”
But at age 73, Mintz feels she has no choice. As long as the coronavirus reigns, she’s committed to digital, no-contact transactions.
So are many of us. Cash has become a pariah. Restaurants won’t take it. Many stores don’t want it. Friends are apt to prefer Venmo, PayPal and other apps. There’s cash stashed in our homes that was acquired months ago. Possibly, it’s molting.
Does the pandemic signify the oft-declared death of sage-colored currency? Cash now seems fraught with risk, not only because of the bills and coins but the proximity of other people involved in each transaction. Health experts believe these concerns are overblown, but anxiety has a way of compounding like interest.
It’s a challenge to give cash to another individual while maintaining a distance of six feet or more, though not impossible if you’re inventive. When a local drill team was performing and raising funds in Mintz’s neighborhood, she donated by placing the bill on the sidewalk and stepping away. She’s taped envelopes with delivery tips to her front door.
Cash, like a sailor on shore leave, gets around. Paper currency doubles as a landing strip for bacteria and viruses. A 2017 study of $1 bills circulated through New York City discovered those Washingtons were rampant with bacteria and viruses from humans, horses and — wait for it — gray wolves and wild boar. (Do we want to know why? No, we do not.) It’s literally filthy lucre.
The average $1 bill — 75 percent cotton, 25 percent linen — circulates for 6.6 years, according to the Federal Reserve; the average $20 for almost eight. According to the financial data site Visual Capitalist, a $1 or $5 bill changes hands an average of 100 times during a year.
But not anymore. The bucks stopped here — in our homes.
Before the pandemic, many Americans had already broken up with cash, preferring the ease of plastic and smartphones and living financially online, the freedom of not handing currency directly to cashiers and making transactions whenever we please.
There are many things people miss doing during the pandemic. Going to the ATM is not one of them.
Cash is so slowly circulating through our perilous economy that it’s resulted in a national coin shortage.
“The flow of coins through the economy has gotten all — it’s kind of stopped,” said Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell in June.
Of all our accumulating worries, hard currency should be low on the list, according to Emily Martin, a University of Michigan associate professor of epidemiology. “For the paper itself, the risk is probably pretty low,” she says.
Cash would need to be stuck where it has no business being to make someone sick. Martin is famous in the epidemiology world — not Anthony Fauci famous, but famous — for saying in 2017, “Please don’t lick the bill or put it up your nose.” Its greatest risk is of giving you acne. Coins present even less of a danger of germs.
As with almost everything concerning the coronavirus, the threat is not stuff — it’s people. (Incidentally, this holds true for much of life.) The longer you spend making monetary transactions with others, the greater the threat of exposure. The virus doesn’t give a cent if you use cash, plastic or phone.
“We think about distance times time for getting exposed,” Martin says. “You may spend longer at the card reader. Cash transactions are pretty brief.” Still, during the pandemic, she’s limited cash transactions, relying largely on digital payments and no-contact deliveries.
“The automated teller machine is more dangerous because somebody might have just been there to get cash,” says Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and epidemiologist, and Detroit’s former health commissioner. “Using a credit card machine is as if you just touched another person’s hand.” Cash, he says, is “not much more bad than anything else.”
For the economically disadvantaged, denied credit, cash remains a necessity. Almost 30 percent of Americans don’t own credit cards, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Several jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Jersey, banned cashless stores as discriminatory. Washington, D.C., is considering a bill that would prohibit them. The fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen eliminated its cashless policy last year after criticism that it was discriminatory against poor, immigrant and younger customers who couldn’t qualify for credit cards.
Cash means a great deal to a restaurant’s waitstaff. Those tips have a greater chance of landing in their pockets. Unlike plastic, cash is worth the paper it’s printed on. It goes further. It presents a kinder, more thoughtful form of payment for small businesses, farmers markets, the very people who need the money. Cash eliminates the middle man claiming a generous cut — banks, credit card companies and apps with their lurking predatory charges.
Cash protects your privacy. It knows squat about our identity. It can’t track late-night food orders. If the chief health concern in handling cash is potential acne, let us move on to other things.
Sydney Douglas, 24, prefers cash. It never surprises, unlike credit cards. She’s a disciple of the Budget Mom, Kumiko Love. Before the pandemic, Douglas assiduously followed Love’s method, maintaining the “Live Rich Planner” and a panoply of cash envelopes that force her to spend only what her budget allows.
Now, she rarely touches the stuff. “My mom always taught me that money is dirty,” says Douglas, a property manager in Glenn Dale, Md. “Once the pandemic hit, I immediately wiped it down with alcohol wipes. I’m just so scared that someone who is sick or asymptomatic may have touched it.” She recently sold clothes to a consignment shop and was paid in cash. The money went directly into the ATM — though not before Thompson, like Mintz, sanitized the bills. Also, the machine and, for extra measure, parts of the interior of her car where germs may have spread.
To the Budget Mom, cash remains her mantra, her movement, her “aha!” moment that attracted 1.2 million Facebook followers. Each month, Love withdraws $1,050 in cash to be placed in seven budget folders (food, household, gas, beauty, pets, fun, miscellaneous).
“From what I’ve read, there’s little to no chance of me getting the virus holding a $1 bill,” she says, cautioning that almost anything involved in a commercial transaction involves germs and risk.
“Think about all the pin pad devices we touch, all the things on the shelves that have been touched by other people,” she says. “I have to stick to the things I know best.”
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