Redefining Cash? It’s More than Bills and Coins
The word “cash” brings to mind bank notes and coins. But we also use the term to mean something other than legal tender – usually in a comparative context.
For instance, a car dealer will ask whether you’re financing a vehicle or paying with cash when “cash” means a check or bank transfer. When a financial advisor talks about cash vs. investments, “cash” refers to liquid funds in savings and checking accounts. But when cashiers at the point of sale ask if you’re paying with cash or credit, they’re talking about bills and coins.
However, even at the point of sale the meaning of cash is being redefined. A decision to go cashless at concession stands in Boston’s legendary Fenway Park has led to an interesting interpretation by the Commonwealth’s attorney general, Maura Healey. She decided it’s OK for the home of the Red Sox to have cashless concession stands because customers have the option of converting cash into pre-paid cards while at the park.
Why does it matter? Massachusetts has had a law since 1976 prohibiting merchants from refusing cash payments: “No retail establishment offering goods and services for sale shall discriminate against a cash buyer by requiring the use of credit by a buyer in order to purchase such goods and services. All such retail establishments must accept legal tender when offered as payment by the buyer.”
Healey, who had warned businesses against refusing cash payments during the pandemic, justified her decision by saying: “The law says that people need to be able to go in and make purchases using legal tender. Traditionally that was known as cash, but as long as there are systems that are in place that allow for the use of cash, essentially through these cards, that’s gonna, we think, work out.”
Healey appears to be reinterpreting what it means to use physical currency since consumers must first go to a kiosk to convert cash into a pre-paid card that concession stands will accept. Her decision comes as a bill to prohibit merchants from accepting cash is making its way through Congress. The Payment Choice Act in July won approval from the House of Representatives. It is now headed to the Senate.
The good news for Fenway patrons is they still can use cash – just not in the traditional sense. However, they can still set a cash budget for the day and stick to it. The big difference is that a purchase at a concession stand requires the extra step of getting a pre-paid card. There’s also the question of what happens with remaining card balances at the end of an event. Do patrons have to go back to the kiosk before leaving the park, and how much extra time does that take?
The buyer’s experience at Fenway is far from unique. Kiosks that handle all manner of monetary transactions are popping up in entertainment venues, stadiums and universities. Besides conversions to cash and credit and back to cash, kiosks are starting to offer plenty of other functionality. Services include loading cash into digital wallets, breaking bills into smaller denominations and even facilitating short-term credit loans.
The kiosks are certainly convenient. But just like any other network-connected system, they are susceptible to outages. When payment networks go down, there’s only one way to pay for a purchase – cash in the form of bills and coins.