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Credit Card Lover in a Cash-Only World

I really dislike carrying cash. It's dirty, makes my wallet annoyingly bulky, and always seems to disappear faster than it should. What's even worse is ending up with a pocket full of change after being forced to buy something with it. The horror! I used to catch my Mom throwing away pennies when I was kid because she didn't want to carry them, but frankly, I can't bring myself to do that. I'm too cheap. So I do the next best thing...dump the change into my wife's bottomless purse to never be seen again. I guess it has basically the same effect, but mentally I can handle it much better.

For the most part I live my life without ever really having to touch or see a greenback. In fact, I rarely carry more than $10 in my wallet when I'm at home in the US, and I avoid cash-only merchants whenever humanly possible. However, I've been forced to drastically alter my cashless ways while spending most of my time abroad in Beijing, China for the past 6 months. And I must say it's been a lot more difficult than I would've ever expected. At least 90 percent of merchants in Beijing only take cash, and unless it's some kind of tourist trap or high-end restaurant, it's still highly unlikely the remaining 10 percent will accept a foreign credit card. In China, cash still rules. And I love China, but I really miss my credit cards.

Here's how my conversation went with a local merchant yesterday when I inquired about using a card to pay:

Me: Do you accept credit cards?

Merchant: What?

I pull out my Capital One No Hassles credit card, which I always use overseas because they still don't charge currency conversion fees, and I show it to him.

Me: Visa?

Merchant: Ah...Chinese or foreign?

Me: Foreign

Merchant: What?

Me: American credit card

Merchant: Ah...No, only cash

Me: That's what I thought

I've had this same dialogue at least fifty times in the past month. My broken Mandarin certainly doesn't help the situation, but it also doesn't stop me from continuing to ask the question wherever I go. I guess there's always the hope someone will say "yes" and I won't have to dig through my wallet for more cash yet again. It does happen from time to time. So it's obviously no secret I love the convenience of credit cards. Likewise, I enjoy having the ability to budget down to the penny and receive a record of every transaction I make. Sure, the rewards, purchase protection, and grace periods are nice benefits too, but my credit card statement is like the gift that just keeps on giving. I love being able to look back over months or even years and track expenses as a part of my personal budgeting process.  It puts everything in perspective.

Switching cold turkey to essentially a cash-only world has made it really difficult to continue managing my finances like I used to. I feel like it's practically impossible to keep track of where I'm spending money, and I always seem to be running to an ATM for more cash. At least things are cheap here! That's my only consolation. But I honestly can't relate to people who argue they can more effectively manage their spending by only using cash. I mean, how do you ever keep track of where it goes? Don't you get sick and tired of running to the ATM to fatten up your wallet all the time? It's so inconvenient.

The credit card market in China is certainly growing after Visa made its huge marketing push during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but I don't expect things to change all that much during my time here. So my wallet will likely remain thick and uncomfortable in my back pocket, and I'll continue to rummage through old receipts at the end of each month to try and complete my personal books. It's not ideal, but it's the best I can do at the moment. I'll miss a lot of things about Beijing when I leave (most of all the CHEAP food and massages), but I definitely won't miss being a credit card lover in a cash-only world. It's a lonely life.

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Joshua Heckathorn's picture

Joshua Heckathorn was President of Creditnet, is a credit expert and has been featured on CNNMoney, FOX Business, Yahoo Finance, The Street, and many other national publications during the past ten years.  He received a Bachelor of Science in Management (Finance) from Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Business and earned his MBA from Seattle University.

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