When the clerk explained there would be an added fee for paying the bill with cash, Butch Lawrence found himself emotionally floored.
What? See, this is exactly the kind of thing that explains why America is so messed up right now, Lawrence recalled saying loudly.
He said the outburst prompted applause from the half-dozen Durangoans standing in line behind him at a local Verizon Wireless store.
Calls to the areas two major cellular providers confirmed the fee. The AT&T store in the Durango Mall charges a $5 penalty to customers who want to pay their bills with cash. And the Verizon Wireless store near Walmart on South Camino del Rio hits customers with a $3 penalty.
Lawrence, a single father of four who was featured earlier this year in a Durango Herald series on poverty, feels the fee is yet another example of how U.S. business practices often work against the poor. He said he also wonders if the cash-payment penalties are the first of many more like it yet to come.
Could we be moving toward a cash-free world?
News reports overseas could be anecdotal evidence that a cash-free global marketplace might be on the horizon.
In the United Kingdom, consumers already are seeing their wallets hurt by paying cash.
Although a hefty percentage of Great Britains residents dont have Internet access, many of the nations utility companies are penalizing consumers for paying their bills with cash or check, according to news reports there.
By 2008, millions of residents already were paying an average $489 more per year in penalties for paying their utility, phone and insurance bills with cash, according to the U.K. Telegraph.
Businesses there explained the changes by pointing to increased costs and risks associated with accepting cash and checks. Their payments are guaranteed by major banking systems when cards bearing a major credit companys logo are used. Cash can be counterfeit, and checks can be returned by the banks unpaid, they said.
Officials with AT&T and Verizon Wireless corporate offices didnt return calls inquiring about why they have adopted a policy of penalizing cash-paying customers.
Local business officials and social-service providers said they could see the allure for some businesses to turn to electronic-based payment systems exclusively. It provides greater ease in tracking, maintaining and merging transactions and payment information into bookkeeping systems when everything is automated. Theres less risk of employee theft when cards are used because of a growing cadre of regulations working to address privacy concerns and fraud. And an employee wouldnt be needed to make daily bank deposits, they said.
But Lawrences fears also have merit, social service providers and business officials said.
We see a lot of low-income people trying desperately to live within their means, and the best way to do that is with cash, said Sarah Smith, director of the Durango Food Bank. This is just one more thing to burden these individuals.
The areas downtrodden do not need another hurdle to overcome in their lives, she said.
A cash-free society also could force people who are undereducated in matters of personal finance to more heavily rely on credit and debit cards and could lead to more debt and default in vulnerable populations, Smith speculated. And a remedy to that problem would require massive education campaigns with hefty price tags for social-service organizations and the government, she said.
Fortunately for people such as Lawrence, said Durango Chamber of Commerce Director Jack Llewellyn, a shift away from taking cash is likely to be resisted among local businesses. Companies here like their independence too much, cash-carrying tourists and locals are a big part of the economy, and the barter system is alive and well in the region, Llewellyn said.
I think were a long way from that (cash-free business), Llewellyn said. I think it would be decades before wed see it happening here.