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When did you last hold a $50 bill in your hand? The new ones look strange … faintly colored, graphically random.

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You should pick one up some time to reacquaint yourself with something called U.S. currency. Look closely. It still reads: This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.

Here’s my question: Does pumping my own gasoline at Costco constitute a debt, either public or private?

Between the moment my gas tank is full and the moment I actually pay for the gas, I owe Costco some money. I have incurred a momentary debt, and it seems to me I should be able to pay it with my U.S. currency.

Just try. In fact, at Costco filling stations my only choice is to pay with plastic—even though there are plenty of human attendants readily available.

Now before I get all cocky and make you think I am always careful to carry the amount of cash I need for the day, let me confess that I struggle with this kind of preparedness as much as anyone. So go easy on me.

While waiting in the gas line pondering what “legal tender for all debts” really means, it dawned on me that I needed a few things from the Costco store—items we purchase in larger sizes because it’s cheaper that way.

I made my list, which seemed to grow with each minute I waited for my turn at the gas pump.

As I pulled out my membership card to worm my way into the store, I decided to pull out my checkbook as well. To be prepared.

No checkbook. Rats! I left it at home.

But there I was, having waded through a sea of fellow shoppers. I was not about to go all the way home to get it. A quick review revealed that I had $42.23 cash.

From that moment on I was a different kind of shopper.

Before assessing my cash situation, I only wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget anything on my list. But now I was thinking about how many of the items were unimportant, so I could cross them off my list.

One after another that’s exactly what I did. I pondered. I calculated. I compared.

Finally, I made it to the checkout with only two items in my cart. I got what I needed and spent less than $23 by switching from name brands to the Kirkland store brand for both items.

As I stood there in the checkout line I had to deal with my attitude.

Without even realizing it I found myself being judgmental and critical of all these people with their carts loaded to the rafters and beyond. They don’t even think about how much they’re spending!


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I worked on myself long enough to come to this reasonable conclusion: The credit-card industry has our number. They know that if they can get us to forego cash in favor of a check or plastic, we’ll spend more—even when we habitually pay the entire balance when the credit card statement arrives.

They know we’ll shop with abandon and care more about what we’re buying than how much we are spending.

Without a doubt, from time to time we all need that kind of wake-up call.

By the way, there is a way to pay cash for gasoline at Costco. It’s a two-step process that is neither quick nor convenient: Walk into the store and purchase a Costco Cash Card, which is one of the plastic options accepted at Costco gasoline pumps.

 

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