April Baker | Ethnography

Money, Money, Money

It doesn’t have to grow on tress if it’s made out of plastic

I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay
Ain't it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me

Money, money, money
Must be funny
In the rich man's world

All the things I could do
If I had a little money
It's a rich man's world

Thousands of songs, films, poems, comic strips, and Hallmark cards have been written about money - and how it either fixes all our problems, or causes them. I spent some time looking at money as a technology - specifically how we use different forms of money (cash, debit, credit, check) and what it does to us or for us. I considered spending habits, emotional attachment to purchases, and overall feelings about both forms money.

Note: I took Family Financial Planning two years ago, but I am by no means a financial expert. I have tried my best to make accurate conclusions based on what I understand and re-learned about finances during the ethnography period.


I chose to gather information primarily from three different sources. First, I searched the internet for numbers, facts, discussion forums, and other websites to help me get an idea of how many people or what kinds of people are using what types of money. (Do more men or women use ATMs? Are lower middle class families depending on credit cards more or less than richer families to cover their expenses?)

I also studied my own personal behavior in regards to using cash or plastic. I tracked my spending during two weeks - one in which I used only cash to make purchases, and one in which I used only my debit card to buy.

Lastly, I interviewed my mother about her spending habits and feelings about money and how those have both changed during her lifetime, and how she differs from her parent’s behaviors.

What is the value of plastic money?

The green dollar is highly valued in American culture. The symbols and images actually on the dollar hold historical value and some mystery relevant only to Americans, though we often overlook the pictures and texts in everyday use. The green dollar is also a guaranteed and tangible currency that (unless counterfeit, obviously) can be exchanged for goods in person. We can keep track of the money in our pockets or under our mattress, and see the physical exchange between money and material goods or services.

However, the purpose of the dollar seems to have become more highly valued than the physical dollar. Carrying crumpled, dirty dollars and counting out jingling change has become a hassle. Like with many technologies, Americans strive for faster, easier, and more convenient, which plastic money seems to achieve. Plastic currency allows us to get in and out of lines quickly, but take care of balancing our account later.

But credit cards can also be a valuable tool. At the very basics, it cuts down on germs. It also opens up a whole new world of virtual transactions online, in which we can purchase from places we would never be able to physically travel to, or send presents directly from the warehouse to our friend’s doorstep. We lose sight of the physical exchange of goods, but instead type in our card number and wait for purchases to arrive in the mail.

In some ways, however, plastic money has become more of a burden than a tool. With paper dollars, you either have it or you don’t. If it’s not in your pocket, you can’t give it to the cashier, and you can’t take home anything for free. But with plastic money, we hold onto the illusion that we have money. We feel that we have the power to buy what we want and pay for it later. We don’t see the balance on our account or the singles in our wallet - we simply swipe and go. The problem occurs when we forget that credit cards do not provide an endless supply of money.

Like the greenback, a plastic debit or credit card is a tangible currency that we can keep with us at all times. However, instead of representing a change of currency for goods and services, it represents the idea that we can and will pay for the things we take. When we use a credit card, the card company assumes that we will be able to pay for those things later. But sometimes we can’t. (And they don’t always mind if we don’t, because they profit from the interest, and can always cause us to file bankruptcy if we get too far behind in payments.)

Has plastic money changed us?

Not only does plastic money open up a world of virtual exchange online, it also opens up the possibility of virtual stealing. Identity theft, lost postal orders, and transactions floating into the depths of cyberspace or not totally unheard of.

From my own personal experience, asking my mom questions, and seeing what kind of questions people are asking or answering online, I think I definitely discovered two different kinds of fear associated with green money and plastic currency.

With cash, these is always the fear that your wallet or purse will get lost or stolen. And if it’s stolen, there’s no way to track it and the bad guy will get away, and you will forever lose however much money you had.

With debit and credit, however, there is a fairly constant threat of scandal. We’re never really sure if that online purchase was secure, or who has access to the numbers we type onto the internet, of how soon we would really notice if money started to turn up missing from our bank accounts.

My mother, a fifty-something baby boomer, says she “can’t bring herself to bank online.” That’s right. She believes every word spoken on Good Morning America is the Gospel truth, but she won’t bank online. She also considers herself fairly up-to-date. And she may be, especially compared to my grandmother, who’s adamantly terrified of anything other than cash - but doesn’t worry about carrying hundreds of dollars of twenties in her purse on any given day.

If we are afraid of the dangers of plastic currency - theft, scandal, financial loss - why do we continue to use it? Have we convinced ourselves that our perceived convenience is worth the risks?

As unrelated as it may seem, I also encountered instances of plastic currency cutting down on human interaction. Have you ever tried to call your bank? My handy-dandy banking let me know that I had been charged twice for an online payment I made, although the company only received the money once, for some reason that no one has the answer to. But I tried to call Wachovia and sort it out, and boy. Let me tell you. It was all very fancy and the automated Wachovia operator makes you feel very comfortable and you don’t have to push buttons to answer his questions anymore, but can just respond with yes or no or some short sentences. However, not only did the operator not have the answer to my particular problem, he also would not allow me to talk to a physical person. I actually had to lie to the operator to get connected to a real live person. And when she told me I needed to call my utility company and then call her back, do you know what number she gave me? The number to the automated voice. From everything I could find, there is literally not a single [publicly available] phone number that will allow a customer to directly contact a real live human being. Human interaction lost.

I also noticed that there is often very little interaction with a cashier when I pay with plastic money. There’s only so many questions she can ask me in the very short time that I’m at the counter, and I’m so busy pushing button after button, that I don’t have the attention span to respond to her small talk. But when I do use cash, the cashier always seems to have some sort of trouble counting out my change, like maybe she’s starting to forget how to use cash, or perform basic math.

It is hard to say whether our behavior is changed as a result of plastic money, or if a change in thinking allowed for the creation of plastic money, or both. We want things to be easier and faster so we come up with this new and supposedly better system. But as with most technologies, we couldn’t predict where the new system would take us.

How has debt accumulation changed us?

There are two stories from my childhood that I remember my mom always telling about my grandparents (in regards to finances - not a common storytelling topic, I know).

The first, is that my grandfather bought and paid for a brand new Ford pick-up truck. In cash. I don’t know if it was envy or nostalgia or maybe just human observation that made my mom always comment, at the end of the story, that she would never be able to pay for any brand new vehicle in cash.

The second story, is that my grandparents at one point built a new house in the 40s and decided to take out a $5,000 loan to finish it. My grandmother (a different one than from above) said she felt like she’d “hocked her soul to the devil” with that loan.

These days, I think very few people are lucky enough to be able to make big ticket purchases in cash. We take out loans to pay for cars, houses, education. Anyone who wants to start their own business would most likely have to take out a loan. I don’t think it’s even completely unheard of for people take out a loan to fund their wedding or a big vacation. (I’m talking broadly here, without giving special attention to the recent and much talked about economic “crisis.”) We’re even encouraged to take out loans that we know we can repay in order to build good credit! Because everyone knows - no credit is the same as bad credit.

Credit cards also allow us to make purchases without actually fronting the money. Although we’re constrained by credit card limits, plenty of people have fallen into a credit card trap where they transfer debt from card to card or stick to making just the minimum payment. And if we never really have to pay our bills, why do we need to work so hard?

Before there was anything other than cash, people worked hard to earn a living and pay for their expenses. Working was the only way to get the paycheck, and the paycheck was the only way to get the goods. But now, our priorities have shifted. We want to work less and play more, but we don’t want to lose any benefits. Credit allows us to finance our desires with necessarily spending the day at the office.

Is it for the better?

The stereotypical American Dream of the mid-20th century is well-known; a white picket fence to protect two [heterosexual and monogamous] parents, their 2.5 children, and their well-groomed dog. A car in the garage and a steady job for dad. However, did anyone ever mention that the American Dream has to be paid in full? Does the car hold any value material if we haven’t paid for it yet? Is it really ours?


Plastic money allows us to believe that we can buy the dream without paying the price. It can create a heavy financial burden for people who overestimate what they can afford, find themselves in an unexpected emergency, or just don’t read the fine-print of the contracts they agree to.

At the same time, plastic currency can be highly advantageous when used at its highest potential. Loans can be very helpful for starting entrepreneurs, first-time home-buyers, and many other investors, as long as they can stick to the payment plan. Credit can be very helpful if there is an emergency before payday, or even just big expenses.

Unlike a lot of technologies, plastic money is more accessible is the majority of the public. Although many credit cards require customers to have a certain credit score or credit history, access to a credit line can usually be purchased at a high enough interest rate. Regardless, loans, credit cards, and other “virtual” banking services are available to the vast majority of Americans who want them. This accessibility often creates a lack of caution, and people may be taken advantage of or, even unintentionally, abuse the system.

Plastic currency follows the trend of many technologies - to give us what we want, and give it to us faster. But at what cost?