Friday, 6 May 2016

Going cashless in Greece

Last month, my car insurance agent called me to let me know that my policy had expired and how much the new policy cost.

"Do you take credit cards?" I asked her.

"No, sorry, we don't have a machine yet."

In Crete, the word 'yet' in collocation with EFT-POS is actually a euphemism for 'We only want cash', 'We refuse to use plastic money', etc. There is nothing wrong with cash of course, and we still have the choice between cash and plastic. But after seven years of crisis, bank coffers being emptied, a period of banks being closed and limits being placed on cash withdrawals, one would think that since everyone has the option of using plastic money now (imposed last year by the banks' closure for close to a month June-July), businesses would give you this option. My quibble with cash comes from having to go out of my way to a cash machine to withdraw ludicrous sums of money: after discovering that the business you wish to deal with does not have a POS machine 'yet', you have to waste time going to an ATM to withdraw money, and waste more time returning to the shop/company. And the simple fact in Greece is that with plastic, you can spend as much as your card rules allow you to, whereas with cash, you can withdraw only 420€ per week. So in effect, I have money to spend, but many businesses do not wish to take my money in the form that I have it in. That's a kind of discrimination, in my humble opinion.

I was too tired to argue with the polite little old lady who runs the insurance company. I was also too polite to argue with the young man she employs in her business. I do not believe that in this day and age, older business people deserve respect as of right, but I've known her for years, and I didn't want to upset her little world until I had sorted out my own priorities. What I should have done was look up online insurance, but in the run-up to Easter, with friends and family visiting, I decided that I was just too damn tired to do anything. So I wasted my time by:
- making a special trip to an ATM, something I rarely do, and hence I regard it as a time waster)
- taking the cash to the insurance agent's office, where I picked up a receipt as proof of payment - but not the policy itself
- making another trip to the insurance agent's office the next day to pick up the official policy, which becomes available only after the company that the agent works for is debited with the money

Madame Insurance Agent probably had to waste her time depositing the same cash I gave her in a bank in order to get the confirmation needed for my policy to be issued. Then again, she probably has e-banking and she might be hoarding the cash. Either way, we had both just used up time with little to show for it. Take all my money, I often say to my family, just don't waste my time. I will find money again, but I will never be able to make up for lost time.

During the Easter break, I went out for dinner to a restaurant in a tourist area. When the time came to pay, I was mighty pissed off that the establishment did not take plastic. (They did not even issue a receipt, but tax evasion is not the point of this blog post). In my opinion, tourist businesses that do not accept plastic are not professional. (It is obvious anyway from the fact that they do not issue receipts.) Cash-only and tax evasion do not necessarily go hand in hand, but in a world that is so highly connected, and with the ECB's recent decision to phase out 500€ bills, everyone needs to use plastic. So if a business does not accept plastic, I personally believe it is in denial of reality, and therefore I do not wish to do business with it.

It was at that point some time around mid-April when I decided to go cashless. I simply refuse to use cash, end of story. It helped that I decided to go cashless close to the Easter holidays because the kids didn't have school, hence no school expenses, which are usually conducted by cash (eg the school canteen, school trips, etc). It also helps that when the children go back to school next week after the holiday period is over, they will be starting their examination period, so they won't have to go to school on a daily basis for the next eight weeks (the Greek education system is for another blog post too).

Yes, I still have some cash in my purse - about 10€ in small change - because, as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule:
- the price of small water bottles is regulated in Greece: they cost just 50 cents. I will not die of thirst on principle. So I will always have cash at the ready for water when I need it while on the road. On that note, I do fill up water bottles at home and take them with me. But I'm talking about dire situations where I couldn't do that.
- we buy the local paper every Saturday, a habit from the days when my mother-in-law lived with us and she liked to read that particular issue. If I'm out in the town on Saturday, I'll continue to buy that paper, for tradition's sake.
- my husband has a phobia of the house running out of bread. He always buys it, but sometimes he runs out of time or he isn't in the region of his favorite bakery and he asks me to buy it. So I will always have cash on me to buy bread, for the sake of a happy marriage.
- I occasionally buy cold coffee when I'm at the beach. I can bring my own from home, but I don't do this simply because beach canteens are one of those businesses that I like to support because they are an essential part of the seasonal local economy. I always get a receipt for my purchase of a super-cold 'fredo' (cold cappuccino), which is paired with a view out to the Mediterranean sea, and this feels like luxury to me without breaking the bank.
- Another part of the seasonal local economy that I strongly support is the school canteen. My teenagers have a big breakfast at home before setting off to school. But they are in their growth stages, and they still get hungry. Sometimes they take a banana or a piece of pie (when I've baked it) with them... But it's not fashionable, and I totally understand how they feel. School tuck shops have felt the effects of the crisis; I regard them as a worthy business, so if I can support them in some small way, I will.

But that's pretty much it. There are no other exceptions.

"Don't think you'll be changing Greece by what you're doing, Maria," my very Greek husband said to me. He forgets that when we married, I put all the house bills on automatic payment. I didn't do it to change Greece: I did it to change my life. I have practically forgotten what it means to queue. For the last 12 years, I've also been e-banking. Greece didn't change because of what I was doing: Greece changed because it was inevitable that she would. Nowadays, more and more people are doing what I was doing yonks ago. They are just catching up with me. I was simply ahead of my time. At this point, I would like to recount a number of experiences where our friends have asked us to buy them cheap airtickets, etc off the internet because they themselves don't have a card, but these are of course very personal experiences. Suffice it to say that I flatly refused to help my friends out with these requests: 'Sorry, I can't do that, you have to get your own plastic issued'. You can guess how badly I came out of these experiences. And of course, you can guess what my friends eventually did: they got some plastic issued in their name. All was forgotten; 'nuff said.

Most branded stores accept plastic, so I will always be able to shop for food, clothing and electronics. Supermarkets and branded shops accept plastic for anything over 5€. I don't often change my home/bath/kitchen accessories, but if I do need anything, I will find a place to do it with plastic, or buy off the internet. These days, I always ask a business if they accept plastic. So I will give myself the choice of doing business with them before they force their business on me. At the moment, I haven't found out which souvlaki store uses plastic, but I'm looking forward to the looks I will get when I ask at a souvlatzidiko if plastic is accepted. I never buy myself a souvlaki (I am too good a cook to eat food off the street), so we are talking about a sum of at least 10€ (which is a decent sum of money for plastic, isn't it?) when I buy it for the whole family. Ditto for coffee outlets, something I rarely drink on the road anyway (see the exceptions above). But I do actually buy good-quality coffee for my coffee machine at home with plastic - the store also sells spices, nuts and other goods, so I certainly am not limited to branded stores. I just need to ask if a store accepts plastic.

I don't smoke, therefore I rarely need to use a periptero (kiosk located on the street). I also don't buy print newspapers and magazines - everything I need is available on the web. I drive, therefore I don't use taxis, except if I have to (eg during public transport strikes). I guess I will have to forego my love for shopping at the laiki (street market), which I haven't done lately. I think it's the cash reason: I rarely have cash in my purse, so I am actually unable to shop there.  I won't even make exceptions for dining out: if I'm the one paying, it has to be by plastic. Otherwise, I'll have to entertain at home, which is not hard to do when you are good enough at cooking like myself. I can't keep making exceptions for everything.

Going cashless in a place like Hania will not be easy, but I am a very organised person, and I think I will not have any real problems going cashless. My husband is a taxi driver who is still mulling over the idea of accepting plastic in the cab (see above for commentary about tourist businesses). Since I am too principled, I won't be using him as a cash alternative. I liken my husband to the insurance agent: eventually, life will catch up with both of them. He's lucky he's got me for support. But my insurance agent will be losing a customer as of sometime close to the end of this year. I don't know what support she will have to make up for that loss. Maybe she'll start using plastic too.

Bonus photo: 

While in London, we ate out at a well known restaurant that does not accept credit cards, only cash. My husband and Greek friend were very intrigued to hear this, as they feel that big brother is always watching you in London and they couldn't understand how it was possible to make a blatant 'cash-only' statement like this in a highly regulated place like London. When it was time to ask for the bill, we were all quite shocked that it came informally - it was simply the order which we had placed, it was written in Chinese, there was no English on the paper, and the only symbols we understood on that paper were the numbers, which referred to the money we owed. My husband then wondered what would happen if we asked for a properly issued receipt. So I decided to run that experiment too. The informal receipt was taken from us and we were given a paper with a rubber ink stamp on it, and a tax number for the business. I'm Greek enough not to be fooled by such practices: I simply do not accept that all this restaurant's income is declared. Tax evasion is NOT just a Greek problem; it's rife everywhere. Cash is part of the problem.

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