How Much Cash (if Any) Should You Carry?

Dayton Uttinger  | 

In the war between paper and plastic, the latter is the clear victor. While we all still use cash for vending machines and amateur poker games, it doesn’t carry as much power as your credit or debit card, which is accepted almost everywhere. However, that “almost” is very important. You should have some cash on you, at least for emergency situations. But how much should you carry?

Well, the answer for that depends on a couple of important factors.

Where Do You Live?

Larger metropolises are more likely to have retailers that are technologically integrated. They likely have more stores with mobile payment options and more ATMs in the event that you really need cash. Smaller towns will have more independent business that can’t afford to pay credit card processing fees, let alone the technology to accept mobile payments. ATMs might be less common as well.  One alternative to an ATM is getting cash back; many places that accept debit cards will allow “overcharge” you for a purchase and then give you the extra in cash.  As long as you know you have the money in your account, and you know a place that you shop routinely that does cash back, this can be a way to circumvent ATM fees.

Similarly, you should be aware of what the crime rate is where you live. As we’ve pointed out before, cards can be easily deactivated if stolen. Cash, not so much. Although pickpocketing has died out, it’s still important to be wary of theft. Specific purchases might require you to carry around a few hundred dollars, but don’t walk around with that amount regularly if you couldn’t afford rent without it.

Are You With the Majority?

There are four major credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express. All have their advantages and disadvantages, but American Express and Discover are accepted less frequently than the other two. If you use American Express, Discover, or a credit card from a smaller company, then you might want to carry more cash on you.

You can usually find an ATM, but being charged to access your own money can be annoying. If you’re with a nation-wide bank, then you’ll probably have no problem finding a corresponding ATM. However, if you belong to a local bank, it will be inconvenient to constantly travel to one or two spots to get cash. It will also be impossible to avoid ATM fees if you’re traveling away from your bank’s base of operations, so you should generally carry more cash with you if you belong to a local bank.

How Do You Handle Social Spending?

You and your friends might rotate who pays for certain regular expenses: a case of beer, pizza, movie tickets, etc. However, if for whatever reason this isn’t possible, you’ll frequently find yourself splitting the cost of the items; this is difficult if you all only have cards. There are apps out there that allow you to pay friends back digitally, but the convenience of cash cannot be matched in this situation.

However, unless you and your friends are planning on going in together on a car or something, splitting items usually means that your portion is relatively small. If you’re only carrying cash because of the possibility that you might have to split a bill with a friend, carry smaller bills and a smaller amount in general.

Smaller bills are also good for hassle-free tipping. Some ridesharing platforms don’t allow for tipping within the app, bellboys rarely have a card reader hand, and you can’t just slide the host at a restaurant your credit card when you’re trying to secure a table. If you find yourself in these sorts of situations frequently, it’s a good idea to carry some ones and fives.

All of this considered, the average Joe should probably carry $20, preferably including some smaller bills. This amount will vary depending upon the factors listed above, but it’s clear that cash isn’t dead yet. While it might disappear soon, it can ease your financial purchases to keep a little green in your wallet.

Looking for more guides on how to use credit cards? Visit our resource and learning center.

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Dayton is a chronic Wikipedia addict, which is detrimental to her social life but stellar for her writing. She resides in Boise, ID, surrounded by her own frantic outlines, highlighted encyclopedias, and potatoes. The latter was not by choice.

This post was updated February 28, 2019. It was originally published May 31, 2017.