The Washington Post

What’s in your wallet? Probably not cash

All of the dollars. (bigstockphoto)

Have change for a $20? Didn't think so.

Almost nobody carries cash anymore, a new study shows, and those who do, don't carry much. Roughly eight in 10 people carry less than $50 cash in their wallets on a regular basis, according to a new report from Close to 50 percent of Americans carry $20 or less each day, including nine percent who don't carry any cash at all. And only 7 percent carry more than $100 each day. "Consumers prefer to pay with plastic, debit or credit or some other type of mobile technology," says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for

The findings aren't too surprising at a time when most consumers are able to swipe their debit cards to buy a pack of gum and scan their phones to buy an afternoon latte. Purchases made with cash aren't as easy to track as those detailed in credit card and checking account statements, and some consumers may worry they'll break their budgets by spending any cash they withdraw. But there could be more at play than the rising popularity of paying with plastic.

Some people don't carry cash because they don't have that much of it to spare, McBride says.  Some 27 percent of Americans do not have any emergency savings, meaning they are pretty much living paycheck to paycheck, according to a separate survey conducted last June. "In that situation, not only is money very tight, but you need every bit of it to pay the bills," McBride says. "So you can’t afford to be tucking away a spare 20 in your wallet."

Indeed, the amount of cash people could access easily declined after the recession, especially for minorities, according to an analysis of Census data by the  Center for Global Policy Solutions,  a D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on social change. The organization found that the amount consumers have in liquid wealth, defined as assets that could be easily turned into cash, declined during the recession and hasn't fully rebounded. In 2011, the latest year for which data was available, median liquid wealth was $10,000 , up slightly from $9,961 in 2009 but still lower than the median $11,518 in liquid wealth that consumers enjoyed in 2005, according to the center. 

But in some cases, not stashing cash could get costly. Consumers who find themselves at a cash-only restaurant or in a cab that doesn't accept plastic may have to pay fees after stopping at an out-of-network ATM. The combined fees charged by banks and ATMs in those scenarios now average more than $4 for each cash withdrawal, according to Suddenly that $20 bill you didn't carry in your wallet is now worth only $16. 


Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.



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