8 Times Cash Is Not King


It's often said that using cash can be a powerful way to control spending and avoid debt. But cash can be highly overrated. It doesn't grow much in value, it's annoying to carry, and it's hard to track.

Here are some times when cash is not all it's cracked up to be.

1. When Interest Rates Are Historically Low

It makes sense to build up an emergency fund of three to six months' worth of living expenses. But when interest rates are super low, like they have been in recent years, any additional cash isn't going to do much for you. Why sit on a pile of cash earning a paltry interest rate and merely racing against inflation, when you can invest and earn a much healthier return? Even billionaire investors like Warren Buffett agree. In a 2014 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, he wrote that over the long term, cash is actually a riskier investment than stocks, due to the potential of inflation wiping away any gains.

2. When a Company Has Too Much of It On Hand

A company with cash is not necessarily a bad thing, but investors can get ornery when there's too much. If you're a shareholder, you want to see that cash returned to you in the form of a dividend, used for acquisitions or stock buybacks, or reinvested to grow the company's businesses. Apple, which consistently has more than $100 billion in cash on hand, began issuing dividends after facing criticism from investors.

3. When You Want to Track Each Dollar You Spend

For those looking to curb spending and stay out of debt, using cash can be the way to go, as you can only spend what you have in your wallet. The downside, however, is that it's harder to keep meticulous records of everything you've purchased. A big part of money management is understanding your spending patterns, and it's easier to track purchases when you use a credit or debit card and receive statements, either online or on paper. Using cards also makes it easier to use online tools like Mint.com, which can categorize your spending and help you create budgets. Unless you are very conscientious about saving receipts or writing down each purchase, using cash won't help you understand your spending habits.

4. When You Are Traveling

There are some advantages to using cash when on a trip. Cash can be used to tip cabdrivers and bellhops, and is handy for when you shop or eat at places that do not take credit cards. Using cash in a foreign country can also help you avoid fees on debit and credit cards, and it's good to have some for an emergency. But cash is not replaceable. If you lose your wallet with hundreds of dollars in it, you're usually up a creek. And using cash won't get you any reward points on things like hotels, rental cars, or restaurants. Additionally, if you are traveling to multiple foreign countries, it's annoying to accumulate sums of foreign currency that you'll have to exchange back once you get home.

5. When You Loan Someone Money

Cash doesn't leave a record. That's great if you're Walter White and need to launder some money. But if someone borrows money from you, it's best to write a check, or use an electronic transfer that leaves a record. You may be unable to collect a debt if you have no proof that you lent someone money in the first place.

6. When You Get Paid

There may come a time in your life when someone offers to pay you "under the table." This means that the employer is simply giving you cash for work without consideration of paying taxes. In theory, you can make more money if an employer doesn't pay payroll taxes, but it's also illegal in most cases.

When you are paid in cash, you lose out on certain protections and benefits. You have no access to retirement benefits, for example. There's no record of your employment, which means you'd be unable to collect unemployment benefits if you lose your job. A person paid in cash would also not be eligible for disability or workers' compensation benefits. And if they're not paying payroll and other taxes, it can be illegal, which we entirely urge you to avoid.

7. When You Are the IRS or Law Enforcement

According to The Wall Street Journal, the use of cash to evade taxes costs the federal government about $500 billion in revenue annually. Cash, the newspaper notes, helps facilitate "racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking, the corruption of public officials, not to mention terrorism." Cash is super for those who are up to no good, but a nightmare for those looking to catch the bad guys.

8. When You Can Use an App

I was out to dinner with friends recently and we needed to split the check. Some of us had no cash. Some did, but only in big bills. It was a nightmare. Luckily, we were able to settle things by using smartphone apps that allow you to transfer money with little more than an email address. Apps such as PayPal and Venmo prevent the need to carry lots of cash, and can even prevent you from stiffing your friends with too much of a dinner bill.

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