By Andy Newman

New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — The other day at Dig Inn, a just-opened lunch spot on Broadway and 38th Street in Midtown Manhattan, Shania Bryant committed a consumer faux pas. She placed her order for chicken and brown rice and yams, and when she got to the register, she held out a $50 bill.

“Sorry,” the cashier told her. “We don’t take cash.” Not, “We don’t take $50s.” No cash. Period.

“What?” Bryant asked.

The cashier patiently explained. Credit and debit cards were fine, as was the easy-to-download Dig Inn phone app. But the almighty dollar was powerless.

“I’ve never experienced that before,” said Bryant, 20, an assistant to a designer. “I guess we’re in new times.”

Indeed. Cashless businesses were once an isolated phenomenon, but now cashless is fast on its way to becoming normal.

But it is not quite normal yet. So the cashier at Dig Inn cut Bryant a break.

“Just this one time, we’ll give it to you on the house,” she said, handing over the bag. “But just so you know, in the future.”

Ah, the future. In the future, when dollar bills are found only in museum display cases, we will look back on this moment of transition and confusion with a head-shaking smile.

Not surprisingly, the credit card companies, who make a commission on every credit card purchase, applaud the trend. Visa recently offered select merchants a $10,000 reward for depriving customers of their right to pay by the method of their choice. A Visa executive described this practice to CNN as offering shoppers “freedom from carrying cash.”

But wait, how is this even allowed? Doesn’t the dollar bill say it’s “legal tender for all debts, public and private.” The Federal Reserve’s website says that notwithstanding that language, there is no federal law compelling a business “to accept currency or coins as payment for goods or services.”

Asked why the $8.71 a customer owes for that Turmeric Sweet Potato Hummus Toast she just ordered is not considered a debt, the Federal Reserve offered a partial explanation, but it begins with the words “for purposes of illustration, and not for attribution to the Fed,” so we can’t share the rest. But a professor at NYU Law School who teaches contract and commercial law, Clayton Gillette, laid it out.

First of all, he said, you don’t have a debt until after you receive a good or a service. What about at a sit-down restaurant, where you pay after you eat? “Assuming the restaurant lets you know up front that they don’t take cash, they’re offering to serve you a meal, but they are offering it on their terms,” Gillette said. “If you consume the meal, you’ve accepted the terms of the contract.”

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