When Cash Ends, What Else Dies?

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 7.40.42 AMBy Leigh Morrow

Hard to believe, but the Mexican peso, one of the oldest currencies in North America, was official tender, along with other coins of this country, in both the USA and Canada until the mid-1800s.  It would have been fun to find a peso in my stocking up in Canada.

Alas, I was born much later, in the 1950s, and as a child I would secretly hope that when I opened that birthday or Christmas card, tucked inside and maybe folded a few times, was a crisp new Canadian bill.  More often than not, it was a blue five note, sometimes for special occasions a purple bill, and once or twice, a brown or a red bill for a milestone birthday, always with the comment “Buy a little something nice for yourself, Leigh, Love, Mom and Dad”.

That was a real gift.  I had received enough gifts that had no meaning for me, like flannel pajamas with feet, lava lamps, figurines. The idea of buying something you had coveted for awhile was appealing because you had been anticipating its arrival!

Those were the days when making money and spending money were bookends.  There was a ying and yang created and some sort of mindfulness.  I would babysit for a few dollars a night, to have spending money on the weekend for lipstick, comics and a new 45-rpm. I set up a lemonade stand with my sibling, to make a few dollars to go to the movies. I would wait tables, bartend, and work the switchboard at a nursing home, to purchase an old jalopy car for University.

In fact, my friends and I came up with some really inventive ways to make money, because there were few other alternatives. There were no credit cards. There wasn’t swipe or tap or square.  The only way you could make a purchase was if you paid cash for it, or bought it on a layaway plan, which young people my age couldn’t do.

I remember as a kid, my Mother taking me shopping at The Bay, a department store that was at one time the mainstay for Canadian consumers, but has since disappeared altogether. This was decades before thrift stores and consignment shopping came into vogue. Basically, everything you bought came from one of the major department stores, or you got it as a wedding gift.

Mom had carefully selected the right sized couch to fit the one wall in our living room that faced the fireplace and had room for a picture to hang above. After much discussion over the months about style, color and material, she settled on a $200.00 ivory-print settee and laid down a hundred dollars in four neatly pressed twenty-dollar bills to put the couch on hold. It’s a concept that is in dire need of revival today. Before she could own it, she needed to save the rest of the money, but this meant the couch was reserved for her. The rest of the payment could have taken a year or more, and my Mother is unfortunately no longer with us to ask, but suffice to say it took a while as she didn’t work and any extras like the couch came from scraping corners from the grocery allowance my Dad gave her. 

When the couch arrived, it was, for my very British mom, as if Queen Elizabeth had come for tea! My mom smoothed those cushions the same way she smoothed her apron, long deliberate strokes, and stood from every angle of the living room to see how it looked. She would walk up to it, sit down, stand up, and then approach from another angle seeing whether the cushions held their place and the tightness of each seat was correct. As children, we were not allowed in the living room, but we would peek in and often see Mom in those first few weeks happily appreciating her new couch. 

My mom never got another couch. That couch followed our family through several more moves across the country and back again; ironically, it was in the same shape as I remember seeing it in The Bay. Even as adults, my brother and I seldom sat on it, perhaps uncomfortable from years of conditioning. 

I believe my Mom appreciated that couch so much more, because she had to anticipate its arrival. I appreciate the fact that we can buy anything on Amazon and have it delivered within a few days right to our doorstep, but have we asked ourselves what we have lost in the process?

Convenience, which my millennial daughter demands, does not come with something my late mother taught me, the benefit of appreciation. I, too, have come to believe that true appreciation only comes after you have wanted an object long enough to really desire it. You need time to fantasize about owning it, so you can appreciate it.  You need time to think about what the coat will feel like, once you own it.  You need time to mentally move that new dining table around your house, and decide where it should live. You need to covet that car so you can drive anywhere your heart desires, ecstatic to explore beyond the city subway or metro stops that have confined your movement.

Very little of that mental appreciation happens now. We buy what we need, or more correctly, what we want, instantly. We do not save up for a purchase, except for a house, because you can’t yet put them on your credit card.  As a result, we have completely buried any hope of having appreciation for what we own. 

That has come with huge consequences.  First, we buy more than what we really need.  We don’t take that slight hiccup in time, like a day or a week to ask – how important is this new item to my life? It probably isn’t that important, and probably you really don’t need it.  So, owning it turns into a disappointment!  Whatever we bought lacks interest to us, and provides little enjoyment. 

That brings us to the second issue.  With the ease of online buying,if our last purchase failed to deliver the love or joy we need, we buy something else, in the hope it will.  So we get back online and have Amazon deliver something else! Check out most of our garages.  No car in sight, just piles of unwanted things.

We now need someone from Japan to tell us how to de-clutter our over-stuffed homes and only keep the items that spark joy with us.  If we had waited and anticipated, prior to buying, I’m sure we would be better at buying only those things that spark joy in us.

I think most of us in midlife would like to buy less, recycle more, and live a less cluttered life. Simplifying our lives and curbing our spending will do us well as we move forward. 

Anticipation is a great tool for this. It helps us get off autopilot.  Anticipation has had a hard time surviving in the modern cashless world.

With instant access to online purchasing, we have made buying anything, even a mattress, a simple, quick, effortless task.  I admit not having to go to a brick-and-mortar store to try out the mattress while you endure the salesperson’s questions – “Do you spoon at night, or are you more a stomach sleeper?” – while staring at the end of the bed, is appealing.  But ordering online, without any mattress-bouncing also erases any hope of developing appreciation for this object.

I really try now in midlife to only buy what I love. I seldom buy new, except underwear, runners, and once in awhile, a mattress.  I’m fortunate to live in an era and a city where thrift-store shopping offers amazing value and quality.  I also like not knowing whether I’m going to find what I’m looking for. Sometimes I need to wait several weeks before the right table or lamp, manifests itself. It has become a game to see how long it takes for the universe to deliver. 

That anticipation makes the wait so great: one day the perfect mirror, kettle, or table is magically sitting there, for sale, and at a great price.  I have saved a lot of money shopping this way. It’s allowed me to be generous with my friends and family and my special projects in Mexico. I want money for all my midlife adventures ahead, and really, by now, what do I really need that I don’t already have?  Anticipation has kept my house and my life uncluttered, clean and simplified.

Consumerism has reached even the small pueblos of Mexico.  I was shocked to see how many had been given credit cards, with no real knowledge of how minimum payments result in double-digit interest rates, damaged credit scores and creditors coming to call. I thought Elektra, Coppel, and other interest-accruing, buy-now pay-in-installment stores would have shown how ruthless late fees are, and ultimately how repossession works. With cash in its grave, we need to learn how to balance the convenience of credit and online payments with our need to anticipate our purchases in order to appreciate them.

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