Plastic Fast: Week One

In Friday’s Money-Savin’ Mama column, I wrote about my newest personal money challenge: to live without my credit card for a month. I officially started my challenge last Monday, right after I finished writing the column. Mainly because it was 4 p.m. and I hadn’t used my credit card that day. Score! One day down, 29 to go.

Now one week into my fast, I’ve already asked myself many, many times, “Why am I doing this?”

At times, it’s been a frustrated question, like on Wednesday when I had to turn back halfway to the grocery store after remembering I still hadn’t withdrawn my weekly cash allowance. I had to retrieve my debit card from its secure hiding spot, go to the bank, get the cash, then go to the grocery store and spend said cash. “Why didn’t I just swipe my debit card at the store?” I asked myself amid all the driving around.

It’s also been a question of worry, like on Saturday, as I drove to Grand Forks, N.D., without the safety net of a credit card. What if something happened? Would the $54 and few check blanks in my wallet be enough to cover me?

And at other times the “why” question has been more philosophical, a question of refinement and focus, to really pinpoint what I can learn from this experiment.

Giving up my plastic is not an indictment of modern banking. It’s not necessarily an exercise of self-deprivation. My goal is to become more aware of my spending habits. To become closer to my cash. To see if I spend less.

It’s also a bit of a social experiment. Can we operate on cash in today’s paperless world?

And finally, it touches on something I read once, about how kids today aren’t learning the concept of personal finance, of exchanging money for goods, because they never see us make such exchanges. Instead, they see us swipe a card and put that card right back in our wallet. Hopefully my daughter can learn alongside me this month.

So, one week in, here’s my tally: I started with $45 plus change, withdrew $100 from the bank, and spent a total of $95.65. That included a trip to the grocery store to restock my cabinets and buy some infant medicine for a feverish Baby Owen.

I did like that I actually had cash on hand to pay the sitter and send a couple bucks to Eve’s preschool for the upcoming Valentine’s Day party. I did feel the pinch at the grocery store. I lined up purchases up on the conveyer belt in order of importance, so if the total got too high I could put the final items back.

But I’ve also noticed how operating on cash is costing me. I got a bill from the clinic, which I’ll need to write a check for and mail (adding the ever-increasing cost of a stamp). I had to pass on a couple daily deal promotions for half-price gift certificates (though I can argue equally well that this saved me money.)  I desperately need to fill my tank with gas, which may save me money (if the station gives a discount for paying in cash) but adds the risk of impulse purchases inside the convenience store (“Mommy, pleeeeeeease can I have it?!?!?!”)

I’m starting Week Two with a bit more focus and intention, a fresh stack of bills, and an empty gas tank.