“With Widespread Power Failures, Puerto Rico is Cash Only” reads the title of a recent New York Times article in the wake of Hurricane Maria. This tragedy in the “Rich Port” is a sad reminder of the importance of keeping some emergency funds in physical cash.
The horrible devastation in this Caribbean territory of the Unites States is another reminder why keeping a few months worth of expenses in cash is a great idea.
It’s also a reminder to the anti-cash types that even in parts of the United States, power restoration can take weeks or months and a society without some cash is economically more vulnerable. This isn’t some abstract problem. It has a face, the face of people waiting in line, not being sure if they’ll be able to buy food or gas because they can’t access their bank account or use their debit card.
If there is a power outage I’m not going to want to spend my gold (the average cashier at the quick mart would probably stare at me dumbly even if I tried), I’m not going to be able to use a credit card, Goldmoney or bitcoin—I need cash.
If you think you’re going to be able to wait for a disaster and then go to an ATM at the same time as everyone else then at best you’re going to be faced with a long line. At worst the ATM won’t work or will be out of cash. Banks will have long lines and they could start imposing withdrawal limits to ration the cash they have available.
This isn’t my theory or some doomsday scenario, this is what happened (and is still happening as I write this) in Puerto Rico.
If people held a few months of expenses in cash then they would be in a better position to buy food, fuel, and start repairing their homes and businesses.
Of Course There are Downsides to Cash
I’m as bearish on US dollars and fiat money as anyone. So of course holding cash has downsides: Here are the main ones:
1) It loses value
The dollar has lost most of it’s value since 1913. So the wealth you have in cash will be inflated away as central banks inflate the money supply.
Carrying around a lot of cash is generally considered risky and not without reason. Looting and a general increase in crime is an unfortunate reality in the wake of disasters. There is also the problem of civil asset forfeiture. In the United States, the “freest country in the world,” if members of the law enforcement community suspect you of a crime, they have the means to simply take your money and/or other property and it will be up to you to sue the government and prove you’re not guilty and get your property back.
Civil asset forfeiture in the US is a black and white violation of the 4th amendment, but it happens all across the US and in 2014 more property was taken from US citizens by members of the law enforcement community than was taken by burglars. But I digress.
These Risks can be Mitigated
Think of cash as a form of insurance against: 1) Loss of electrical power 2) Capital controls 3) Negative interest rates
And like all insurance it comes at a cost. The cost of holding cash is inflation and the opportunity to put the cash to work in other investments.
I already own various hedges against inflation, such as gold, silver, stocks, and even cryptocurrency, albeit I remain very cautious of this last one. So the fact that a few months worth of expenses in cash losing value is of little concern.
The risk of theft can be mitigated as well:
1) Keep most of your cash in a safe or hidden place
2) Keep it in various locations around your home and perhaps at other locations as well
3) Don’t carry all of your cash at any one time
4) Dress nicely and be respectful to members of the law enforcement community
If two months worth of expenses is $2,000 I’m not saying carry around two grand. Maybe you keep $900 in a safe, $500 hidden someplace else in your home, and $500 with a trusted family member or close friend and a $100 in your purse or wallet. When you go to the store or gas station only take the cash with you that you need. That way if someone uses force to take your money, they won’t get all of it.
The Upsides Makes Holding Some Cash the Smart Move
1) I can be my own ATM. I’m not reliant on a bank or ATM allowing me to withdraw my money. I hold my money. This is vital when everyone is trying to withdraw cash at the same time.
2) If there is a power outage or communication disruption I can still buy food and fuel. Whether it is an EMP, ice storm, hurricane, brownout or cyber-attack, I can still buy the basics of life until things settle down. While fiat money is weak over the long term, in a disaster cash is still king.
Holding a few months of expenses in cash is a great idea. It can also double as an emergency fund in case you have an emergency repair to your car or home, medical expenses, etc.
Smaller denomination bills make more sense. Acquire $10s and $20s not $50s and $100s. Stores are generally more suspicious of larger denomination bills.
Not only that but it allows you to provide for yourself and help others. If I don’t have to go to the ATM or bank to withdraw cash that means there is one less person in line and anyone who would have been behind me in line can get cash faster. If 20-30% of people or more are prepared for a disaster it means there are much fewer people that need to be helped and there will be more resources to help a smaller number of people who need help. Maybe you’ll be able to share some of your cash with a neighbor and help them out.
Cash isn’t an investment and yes it loses value thanks to central banks, but holding a month or two’s worth of expenses in cash is a smart idea as part of a larger wealth and financial protection strategy. My thoughts and prayers are certainly with the people of Puerto Rico and it is a sad reminder of the importance of cash.