Shopping with cash is still the best way to save

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When did you last hold a $50 bill in your hand? They look strange — faintly colored, graphically random.

You should pick one up sometime to reacquaint yourself with something called U.S. currency. Look closely. It still reads, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

Here’s my question: Does pumping my own gasoline at Costco constitute a debt, either public or private?

Between the moment my gas tank is full and the moment I actually pay for the gas, I owe Costco some money. I have incurred a momentary debt, and it seems to me I should be able to pay it with U.S. currency.

Just try. In fact, at Costco filling stations my only choice is to pay with plastic — even though there are plenty of human attendants readily available.

Now, before I get all cocky and make you think I am always careful to carry the amount of cash I need for the day, let me confess that I struggle with this kind of preparedness as much as anyone. So go easy on me.

While waiting in the gas line pondering what “legal tender for all debts” really means, it dawned on me that I needed a few things from Costco —- items we purchase in larger sizes because it’s cheaper that way. I made my list, which seemed to grow with each minute I waited for my turn at the gas pump.

As I pulled out my membership card to worm my way into the store, I decided to pull out my checkbook as well — to be prepared.

No checkbook. Rats! I left it at home.

But there I was, having waded through a sea of fellow shoppers. I was not about to go all the way home to get it. A quick review revealed that I had $42.23 cash.

From that moment on I was a different kind of shopper.

Before assessing my cash situation, I only wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget anything on my list. But then I was thinking about how many of the items were unimportant so I could cross them off my list.

One after another, that’s exactly what I did. I pondered. I calculated. I compared.

Finally, I made it to the checkout with only two items in my cart. I got what I needed and spent less than $23 by switching from name brands to Kirkland.

As I stood there in the checkout line, I had to deal with my attitude.

Without even realizing it, I found myself being judgmental and critical of all these people with their carts loaded to the rafters and beyond. They don’t even think about how much they’re spending!

I worked on myself long enough to come to this reasonable conclusion: The credit card industry has our number. It knows that if it can get us to forgo cash in favor of a check or plastic, we’ll spend more — even when we habitually pay the entire balance when the credit card statement arrives.

It knows we’ll shop with abandon and care more about what we’re buying than how much we are spending.

Without a doubt, from time to time we all need that kind of wake-up call.

By the way, there is a way to pay cash for gasoline at Costco. It’s a two-step process that is neither quick nor convenient: Walk into the store, and purchase a Costco Cash Card, which is accepted at Costco gasoline pumps.

Mary invites questions, comments and tips at Every dayCheapskate.com , “Ask Mary a Question.”