Saturday, July 4, 2009

Will that be Cash, Cash or Cash?

Tucked in the feature section on any given Sunday paper, we read about an elderly woman passing away. As the story, goes within days of her passing, the family discovers that she was hoarding tens of thousands of dollars in her mattress. It usually unfolds that she was a survivor of the Great Depression, and thus lost trust in banks or was just simply spooked by someone or some stock handling her money. I never thought I'd become one of those little old headlining woman at the age of 25, but I am ahead of my time by never being without a secret stuffed stash of my own on hand, in bag and at home.

I received a handsome leather checkbook cover for my launch into the real world for university graduation. Alas, it remains unused. I haven't seen a checkbook in 15 years. My launch into the real world of fake money was short-lived due to the fact that I relocated to a cash-based society 3 years out of my student costume and into my spending career. I guess I don't really miss dealing with balancing act side of a checkbook, however, I don't necessary enjoy the trade off of the different kind of balance it takes to carry a kilo lump sum load in my wallet at all times. My Mom endearingly calls her smaller scale, secret stash, her "mad money." Her theory is that it's nice to have a fund that requires no explanation to anybody, which I never argued with. Basically, it was her unaccounted for just-in-case tap, which was usually activated when one of "us kids" needed (OK, wanted) money for an off the usual page purchase. Yet the wad I am required to have on hand-to-mouth in Japan is light on the mad money and heavy on the drive me mad money.

Payday was quite the adventure during my first 4 years here as a public servant. It could have been more of a Bonnie and Clyde adventure for the tempted, since all civil employees were handed manila envelope stuffed with a month's package of cash remuneration on the same 25th day of the month, stacks of 10,000 yen ($100) bills. During lunch break, I'd pop it in my bag, toss the bag into my bike basket and pedal to the bank. I'd deposit what I needed for living expenses for the month, pop the remainder right back in the basket. Next stop: the post office to send the rest to a savings account in the States via "Postal Giro." It really was not as glamorous as it sounds, like having a Swiss bank account, or some kind of wire transfer to numbered account in the Cayman Islands, at the time it was just the only way I knew how to deal with a foreign income in attempt to start dropping in the bucket toward a savings.

For years I took shopping with a credit card for granted. I'm no shopaholic, and this isn't some confession of an addiction to, or an "Ode to" plastic here. Frankly, my spending habits are as boring as they get. My Dad would be proud to say that I take after him in that department, which rarely would involve a department store. I don't buy on impulse, I stick to the sales rack, and I've paid my charge off in full every month since I've had one in my name. Yet, the convenience of a card is what makes it deserve its "gold" or "platinum" status. It used to surprise me at the end of a transaction, for say, 2 (now 3) international round trip air tickets when following the process of being on hold, fussing over this date or that date, aisle seat or window, and settling on a reservation for the newsflash, "we don't take credit cards." Granted, it feels like more of a commitment when you hand thousands of dollar bills over the counter (definitely not under) at the confirmed reservation stage before final ticketing even takes place, as opposed to the lighter feel of letting a middle man step in by blindly handing over a card and letting the banks intervene in their magic ways. I could attribute this mandatory use of cash, which usually comes with a "no give-backs" clause, to having gracefully forced me not to waffle in making big ticket purchasing decisions.

Many upscale Japanese inns abide by the cash only motto as well. The getaways are hot spring resorts which includes an elaborate dinner spread and breakfast buffet, and are fully equipped with on-site entertainment. Once clients check in, outside of dipping in the outdoor bath or taking a photo in the garden, rarely does anyone leave the property. It's a relaxing, fun and food-filled experience requiring a hefty stack of crisp bills at checkout. This is an absolute cultural contrast from the States. First of all, as a rule, many American hotels request a credit card number in order to reserve the room. Moreover, if I checked out after a night at a State-side hotel and handed over stacks of hundreds, the paparazzi would probably be casing out my room in hopes of catching a married senator escaping down the fire exit before I even had time to make it out to parking and tip the valet (who incidentally accepts cash).

I have moved at least 5 times since first declaring, "I'm never moving again." With each move, the deposit, advance rent, and "key money" (non-refundable, obligatory gratitude money) are due upfront, in cash. It's the equivalent of 5-6 months rent at one time, and that is Tokyo scale rent, not semi-humble Columbus, Ohio, housing prices. Moving companies require the full sum upon completion of the job, so by the 3rd or 4th move, I made sure I just labeled one of the boxes "stacks of cash," for easy access. As we progressed in dumping "brown backs" into upgraded rental properties, we started to shop around for something to put in the vacant car port. We test drove a few compact little turbo models, settled on a Suzuki, signed the agreement and selected an insurance plan. The dealer expected a payment in full, in cash, for the wheels and the insurance plan. We set out on foot from home, to the ATM machine, and made our way to the car lot with the money, needless to say, at a brisk pace. With paranoia less in mind than just splitting the heavy load, we divided the sum for the walk across town to invest in our first 4 wheeled transportation.

A year later, I found myself accessorizing the car with a child seat. Our daughter was born in February, 2005. Typically, to reserve a room in the hospital, you put $1,000 in cash down at your birthing center of choice 6 months before the due date. Standard hospital stays are 1 week, and on check out, the balance is due, in cash. Now that was a fun phone call to make:
"Honey, the baby and I can come home today around noon."
"Great! Do you need me to bring anything?"
"Maybe a fresh onesie, the camera, and our life savings, in cash."

At least by that time in our expat lifestyle, Bob was able to carry the bills in the car glove box, rather than a shopping bike basket or jeans back pocket on foot. Preparing cash payouts for the outrageous big ticket items, as abnormal practices go, has gradually become normal to me. Travel, housing, cars, insurance, health care, and not to be ignored, education: Tuition goes by the same rule book. From my husband stuffing an envelope of $3,000 dollars in his wallet to board a train and hand over grad school tuition at the end of the train line, to putting the crisp bills in an envelope in my 4 year old's kindergarten backpack every month, I find myself cringing less and less, which could be considered "adjusting."

On the other (empty)hand, the nickle and dime stops still take me off guard more times than not. I would never bother asking at a Mom and Pop noodle shop, or a fruit and veggie stand if they take cards. Vendors that tally the bill using an abacus likely would take cover under the desk at the sight of a modern payment plan for a bowl of $6 ramen or a couple of Fuji apples. But I am the one taken aback when national chain restaurants or grocery stores, which tend to have an "American" feel with high chairs stacked in the corner or impulse check out items at the register, to deal in cash only. Thanks to the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, at least credit cards gained visibility. Literally: VISA was one of the sponsors of the Games, so billboards and posters nation-wide had the big card looking over us. At least that made it less of a fear factor to vendors when asked if they accepted cards. It was around that time that major department stores, electronics stores and the like started accepting the cards without the clerk having to ask his superior, the superior going to the assistant manager, the assistant asking his manager, then everyone sits down over green tea at a conference in order to reach a consensus as to how to let me down in a delicate way as to not disrupt the harmony of my shopping experience. But really, what business can afford the time to stop and deliberate these matters when the clerks should be counting stacks of bills?

I grew up in a shopping democracy where every trip to the register was capped off with, "Will that be cash, check or charge?" The next decision would be, "paper or plastic?" There are plenty of plastic bags in a variety of sizes at the check out in my shopping circuit in Japan, but rarely plastic payment options available. In the States, I would be sure to have some cash on hand at home. After all, on any given day a local booster club could be selling items for a fund-raiser, or the annual Girl Scout cookie sales would come door to door. However, with the volume of bill collectors that come to my door in Japan expecting "paper" on demand, I think I'll continue stuffing, unstuffing and restuffing my futon mattress with cash for the years to come until I become that little old lady of human interest. In the meantime, keep an eye on your local Sunday paper feature, hopefully not funnies, section.

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