x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

On the Money: In a glitch-filled world, always keep a stash of cash

There I was, standing sheepishly at reception asking them to try yet another card. It's embarrassing even though you know you pay your bill every month.

Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

Remember cash? I used to think it was passé. Until I came to the UAE, that is, and had to wait a couple of years for "the world's local bank" to issue me a debit card.

Back then, I had to plan way ahead and "guesstimate" my outgoings every week because I couldn't always make it to a cash machine, most of which are inconveniently located in malls and require a major effort just to get there.

It was irritating and there was nothing more that I disliked than having to use my high-interest credit card because I was caught short of cash, which seemed to happen every week despite my guesstimates.

What I longed for back then was a simple cash card that I could use every where - supermarkets, pharmacies, malls, cafes, restaurants - not to mention something similar to the Octopus card I used in Hong Kong for transport and groceries, or my Oyster card, which I still use in London.

Cash no longer rules my life as it did in my early days in the Emirates thanks to the Visa payWave card I finally received last year.

So it came as a surprise on a recent trip to Muscat that not one of my cards worked when the time came to pay my hotel bill.

There I was, standing sheepishly at reception asking them to try yet another card. It's embarrassing even though you know you pay your bill every month. But try explaining that to the receptionist, who just nods her head and rolls her eyes in exasperation because she's heard it a million times.

But after trying three separate cards issued by banks in three different countries, it occurred to me that there had to be something wrong with their machine.

Suddenly, the shoe was on the other foot - and I was vindicated. But the receptionist still didn't believe me. Or perhaps she didn't know how to reset the machine. Or be bothered, for that matter.

"You have cash?" she asked.

"Cash? What do you mean cash? Are you asking me to pay my bill with cash?" I asked, trying not to sound panicked.

And there I was, transported back to my early days in the UAE, to a time when I learnt very quickly that I always had to have cash on me.

Even more surprising was how fast I'd forgotten how important it was to have an emergency stash of cash tucked away, especially since I'd only received that debit card last year.

So the scrounge around my wallet began. I found Dh800 and 30 riyals (Dh286.22). I blame my lack of cash on too much time at Muscat's famed souq on the Corniche. Nevertheless, I was short, my taxi was waiting and I was now running late for my flight. Those three days of blissful relaxation were fast disappearing and I was feeling stressed again.

It's a good thing my sister-in-law was there to bail me out, but neither of us had any cash left after we'd paid the bill. And for the first time in a long time, I felt a little exposed without cash in my wallet.

The move towards our cashless lifestyles has taken hold around the world. And in most places it works well. The trend only started to take hold in the UAE a couple of years ago, but there's still a lot of businesses around the region that have yet to catch up with the 21st century and offer this type of payment system.

Cash is still king here, despite the flurry of launches by banks - both local and foreign - for their contactless debit cards and preloaded credit cards. Using our own money is preferable to using credit, of course, but let's face it, it's not a profitable sector for banks to be in. It's a no brainer to say they'd prefer their customers to use their credit cards, which carry unbelievably high interest rates in the Emirates.

That said, banks have had no choice but to keep up with the times. Economic volatility has forced millions to rethink their strategies on how they pay for their purchases, preferring instead these days to use cash, cheques or debit or prepaid cards over credit.

But a survey conducted by Barclaycard in the UK has found that one in eight Britons don't carry cash, while half of those polled believed that coins and notes would become obsolete in the future.

"The average British purse or wallet contains just £23 [Dh130.32] and the majority of us [57 per cent] refuse to carry around one or two penny coins," said the study, which was released in August last year.

"Half of us give away small change in some form - either to charity, to children, or simply throw it in the bin."

So Britons can now afford to throw their money away. And here we were thinking that the country's economy was going down the tubes.

Still, Dan Wass, the head of current accounts and contactless at Barclays, says: "Although we are far from becoming a cashless society, it's clear from our research that cash is no longer king. Consumers are increasingly less willing to carry large amounts of change around with them and many believe that coins will become obsolete in the future."

In the US, a survey released by the Federal Reserve found that Americans were ditching their credit cards and chequebooks in favour of debit and prepaid cards. The same is happening in Australia, all over Europe and Canada, while Hong Kong has been Asia's leader in cashless payments for years.

We've still got a way to go before every business and retailer embraces the contactless payment system in the GCC.

And until then, keeping an emergency stash of cash in my wallet will be de rigueur for me; a tactic reminiscent of that now old-fashioned belief that a credit card would always get you out of a spot of trouble, such as being caught short of cash when it comes time to pay a hotel bill - or anything for that matter.