Brother can you spare a dime?
July 6, 2007 12:36 PM   Subscribe

How much money did people carry pre-ATM?.

Alfred Hitchcock often uses the exchange of cash to move the plot of his films. In Psycho a house is purchased with cash. An automobile is too. In Dial M for Murder weekly cash withdrawals of a mere 5 pounds is enough to bring suspicion upon Ray Milland, and in North By Northwest Grant goes 3/4 across the USA with only what he has in his wallet. So I ask How much money did the typical upper middle class man (as most of Hitch's characters are) carry before the advent of the ATM?

From reel .com "Throughout the New York section of the film, Grant is constantly giving cash to people — cab drivers, Plaza Hotel bellhops, the valet service guy, a $50 bribe for his mother (Jesse Royce Landis), and so on. Then he tries to buy a train ticket to Chicago on the 20th Century Limited. After that, he buys lunch in the dining car, bribes a train porter so he can wear his uniform, buys a bus ticket from Chicago to the Illinois farmland, and so on."
posted by Gungho to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you can use old movies to decide how much cash people used to carry, any more than you an speculate that people in modern movies represent what the typical person can afford in a house, car clothes, etc.

(One nitpick: The cash in Psycho is admittedly a little shady. "I do declare!" "I don't. That's how I get to keep it!")

In movies, people carry exactly as much cash as required by the plot. And if the plot requires them to run out of cash, they will.

Having said that, before ATMs were prevelant, I still usually didn't carry more than about $40 in cash at any one time. My dad, who still does not use an ATMs or checks are credit/debit cards, carried less than $100. I specifically remember that he needed to buy something for $65, and he had to make a trip to the bank to withdraw the money. Trips to the grocery store also required a bank trip. My father was/is by no means typical, but that's my experience.
posted by The Deej at 12:44 PM on July 6, 2007

I don't think it is the ATM that caused most to carry less cash, but rather it was the availability of credit and credit cards. Most people did not have credit cards so they paid cash for everything.

My Dad carried a lot of cash and he was not rich by any means. He had $500 on him usually. He always told me it was "just in case".
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:49 PM on July 6, 2007

According to the "Today's Dollars" calculator, $50 in 1959 is $312.07 today.
posted by The Deej at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2007

Oh, meant to add: strange thing about my dad not carrying much cash: he had thousands of dollars hidden in the house. I helped him count $8000 one time. But he would never touch that for purchases, and never take it to carry on him.
posted by The Deej at 12:54 PM on July 6, 2007

my grandfather used to carry $200 or so with him. he never used atms. he was a retired military officer, not rich, not poor.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:57 PM on July 6, 2007

i can remember my father always carried a $100 bill for emergencies back in the day (mid 1970s). He would also probably have another $50 or so in loose bills. We were middle class.
posted by Flood at 1:06 PM on July 6, 2007

In the 1960s, my mother would always write her check for the weekly groceries for $100 over the amount - that was her spending money for the week. Bills and larger purchases were paid by check.
posted by metahawk at 1:06 PM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I rarely use credit cards (didn't have one until I was well into adulthood). And I rarely use ATMs because my bank has a tiny network, and I hate surcharges.

I withdraw and carry $400. That serves me for several weeks of expenses (lunch, groceries, transportation).

That fits well with the estimate above of Grant's $50 equaling $300+ today. It's enough to keep you going for a while without visiting the bank.
posted by zippy at 1:08 PM on July 6, 2007

i can remember my father always carried a $100 bill for emergencies back in the day (mid 1970s). He would also probably have another $50 or so in loose bills. We were middle class.

My husband still does that to this very day (and we're in our 30's).
posted by anastasiav at 1:20 PM on July 6, 2007

My mom used to always carry a $100 bill as "pin money" and advised me to do the same (this was pre-ATM). Turns out what she called pin money was actually her emergency fund (she spoke English as a second language, so colloquialisms sometimes slipped by her). I recall her paying for anything over $40 with a check. This would be circa early 70s.

My FIL, who is in his mid90s and has never touched an ATM, continues to peel off bills off what can only be described as a healthy-sized pimp roll. Oddly, it's quite unnerving to see him carrying around so much cash but my in-laws have assured me he's done it this way his entire life, a holdover from many years of living paycheck to paycheck.

The arrival of ATMs coincided with my status as a poor college student, therefore I rarely carried more than $20 in cash before or after they became widespread, until I got my first job. Then I upped it to $40 (woo hoo, big spenda).

I still carry a $100, though. Same one since '78.
posted by jamaro at 1:33 PM on July 6, 2007

i'm going to start tailingzippy.
posted by garfy3 at 1:47 PM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

before ATMs were prevelant, I still usually didn't carry more than about $40 in cash at any one time.

I was going to say $40 - for me, as a student. (I can remember when ATMs were new, and dispensed 5s).

But on the other hand, my parents and grandparents carried more. The men seemed to always have at least a hundred dollars on them. The women, perhaps because they carried purses and had the room, favored checkbooks for much of their spending.

I do remember, as a kid, having to always go along for a Friday stop at the bank to cash the paycheck so there would be spending money for the weekend. Because if you didn't have cash Friday night (and if your bank didn't have courtesy hours, 8-10 on Saturday morning), you weren't getting any more cash until Monday.

Supermarket banks were the crutch then - they kept different hours than freestanding banks, and sometimes my folks could cash a check there when the 'real' bank was closed.

Nevertheless, you did have to plan ahead quite a bit more than today.
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on July 6, 2007

Although I have nothing at all to base this on, I'm guessing that before ATMs, people were more likely to keep extra cash at home to minimize bank withdrawls.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:59 PM on July 6, 2007

I would hazard a guess that even in the pre-ATM era people might accidentally over-spend. So chances are they budget just as us credit-card carrying users do--by deciding what they really need to buy at home--then bringing only what they need with them on shopping trips. Otherwise I would hazard a guess of $10-$50 in bills and coins depending on the kind of emergencies they might find themselves in*.

* Running out of gas, need to make a long distance call in case of emergency, enough to pay the taxi to the hospital, dinner and a movie in case of meeting the perfect someone.
posted by iheartcanada at 2:12 PM on July 6, 2007

I have a friend who lives paycheck to paycheck and doesn't use banks - he's always got a fat roll on him. Maybe about 200-300 dollars on average, depending on where in the pay cycle he is.
posted by frobozz at 2:20 PM on July 6, 2007

I traveled a lot in the 70s and 80s, before ATM networks were widespread, and even Mastercard, Visa and Amex were still only useful in about 50% of retail establishments in the U.S, by 1980. Domestically, I routinely carried several thousand dollars in cash on the road, typically paying for hotels, meals, entertainment and out of pocket expenses for my subordinates in cash. Only air fares, rental cars and certain other routine expenses went on credit cards, by tacit agreement with other travelers. It made doing expense reports cleaner, and there was no chance of embarrassing credit card statements showing up at home.

Internationally, I carried about the same amount of U.S. currency, but augmented it with travelers cheques in Europe Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. In the Middle East, Africa, and South America, cash was considerably more utilitarian, but on extended trips, I made time in my itinerary, as did most business travelers, to visit correspondent banks abroad as a routine matter, to pick up remittances wired from home. Cash management abroad was an important security consideration in many parts of the world, and still is.
posted by paulsc at 2:33 PM on July 6, 2007

Thoughout the 80's, my mom (working class) would usually have $40-80 in cash, and she wrote checks where possible.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:23 PM on July 6, 2007

Oh, and she wrote checks for over the amount almost every time we went to the grocery store, and got cash that way.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:25 PM on July 6, 2007

Cash management abroad was an important security consideration in many parts of the world, and still is.

It is, in that you need to keep your cash safe, but it's not, in that you don't need to worry about traveller's cheques before you go overseas. I haven't used travellers cheques since the 80s - credit cards and ATMs are always easier and cheaper (even in Africa, I've found. And I'm seriously yet to find anywhere remote in the world that doesn't accept US dollars).

I remember my uncle paying cash for a Lexus in 1988 - $AU75 000 in a bag - but that was weird. My parents kept mroe cash on them than what I do now, but the bulk of my shopping is done online.
posted by goo at 4:14 PM on July 6, 2007

I remember making trips to the bank on Fridays with my dad so that he could take out a few hundred dollars for the weekend. I also remember that he always kept a $100 bill hidden in his wallet for "just in case" type money.

I lost my ATM card a while back and at first it was a bit weird to carry a few hundred dollars around with me at all times, but I actually got used to it pretty quickly.
posted by atomly at 5:18 PM on July 6, 2007

I just thought of something germane - in the 80s a friend of mine was a payroll clerk for a large municipal council. Part of his job was to walk the fortnights wages over to the bank across the road for depositing in the workers accounts. He had millions of (AU) dollars in two bags, and was accompanied by two security guards with guns each time. This would be unheard of now, with electronic banking (I assume).
posted by goo at 5:31 PM on July 6, 2007

And another thing - I'm not sure about elsewhere in the world, but in Australia payday is (still) traditionally a Thursday, so you can get to the bank on Friday (which had a late closing to accommodate) to have money for the weekend.
posted by goo at 5:40 PM on July 6, 2007

Semi-related: my dad would pay his utility bills at the bank when he deposited his check. No need pay by check or cash.
posted by The Deej at 7:20 PM on July 6, 2007

In the 70's and 80's, there were a couple of neighborhood stores (a liquor store, a grocery store and a drug store) where my parents regularly cashed personal checks if they needed cash when the bank was closed.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:53 PM on July 6, 2007

I used to carry about $70 in loose bills and a checkbook (this was in the mid 80s/early 90s, before debit cards were universal, and it was a lot easier to pay with a check). My mother used to start a pay period (two weeks) with about $300 for groceries and general shopping. We'd stop by the bank (or use a store card) if we needed to do any non-usual shopping (back to school or housewares). Major purchases were usually done with a check or a special trip to the bank. I still try to carry about $40 in bills. (and there's $100 in the freezer, and $20 in small bills in the desk.)
posted by jlkr at 9:44 AM on July 7, 2007

This is a clever way of identifying who on MeFi to jump.
posted by trim17 at 10:18 AM on July 7, 2007

This would be unheard of now, with electronic banking (I assume).

On that scale, probably so. However, cash is still the basis for transactions. When I was working part-time as a restaurant manager just three years ago, I had to make a cash drop about 11:30 PM each night which sometimes totaled several thousand dollars. The bank was a few blocks away and we used a deposit key to drop the envelope in an outdoor deposit box. No guard; I did it myself.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on July 7, 2007

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