A Payments Christmas CarolFebruary 16, 2015 | By: Sean Murray
The leather was already stretched to the max, but I had managed to squeeze my health insurance card in there last night. Now as I approached the subway turnstile I would suffer the consequences. With my wallet in my left hand, I gripped the tip of the metrocard with my right to try and yank it out.
Out came a flurry of credit cards, debit cards, ATM cards, healthcare spending cards and gift cards. There were green ones, blue ones, red ones, and even cards with an array of colors. In the air I could see Chase, Citi, Bank of America and more. They said things like Visa, Rewards, Platinum, and Not Valid Unless Signed.
For a moment in time the tornado of plastic cards was beautiful. But as gravity took over, they came pouring down on my head and I could feel myself falling, falling, falling….
When I woke up, three ghostly figures stood around me.
“Who are you guys?” I asked.
They smiled and answered in unison, “Why we’re the Ghosts of Payments Past, Present and Future.”
“Aren’t you supposed to visit me separately?” I asked.
“Normally we would, but these days payments are all discombobulated. Come, take a trip with us.”
Without warning the specters transported me to a coffee shop checkout line. Everyone was paying with their iPhone 6.
“Is this the future?” I inquired.
“We’re not exactly sure,” they responded. “Go, try to use Apple Pay here.”
As the proud owner of an iPhone 6, I rushed to set up Apple Pay on my phone but failed. Apparently my credit card bank was not on the list of limited Apple Pay issuers.
“Small community bank?” they asked with feigned surprise.
“Uh no, It’s HSBC. It’s a pretty huge international bank,” I said back.
The ghosts looked at each other, nodded and almost on cue the room went dark.
When it lit back up, I was in the office now. Nick Stough at Lenders Marketing, a company that sells a unique type of MCA leads was trying to send me a payment. “Credit card, check, or ACH?” I asked him.
“How about Bitcoin,” he responded.
“Bitcoin? Woah, surely we are in the future now!” I exclaimed. Lenders Marketing transferred funds directly to my computer instead of to my bank. I was then able to convert the coins’ private key to a piece of paper bearing a printed QR Code. The money was completely off the digital grid.
The ghosts looked on expressionless. “Is this what payments are like in 2030?” I asked. But they said nothing and pointed at my computer’s calendar app. It was February 2015, the present.
Just as I turned to communicate further with the ghosts, a fierce wind cut through the office and I went flying through the air. I landed in the living room of my apartment and could see a doppelganger of myself in front of the computer. I looked stressed as I stared at my banking history online.
“Why do I appear so worried?” I asked the ghostly figures.
The Ghost of Payments Past answered alone. “Why the check you wrote to your landlord for the rent hasn’t been cashed yet and it’s already the 15th of the month,” he said. “You’re worried it got lost in the mail and she may have never received it.”
I responded with a playful tone. “But that’s a silly problem from like 1999. Is that it? Are we in 1999? For if it were the present, I’d be paying by ACH, credit card, or who knows, maybe even bitcoin!”
“Sean,” said the Ghost of Payments Present. “This vision isn’t 1999. It’s you last week. Your landlord has never heard of ACH or bitcoin. Checks are the only payment method they accept.”
Incredulous, I claimed there must be some mistake. “But it’s so much easier to do ACH payments, I just signed up to process ACHs a few weeks ago myself. Even I can initiate ACH withdrawals and I am just a mere mortal. Payments by check only in 2015? Specter it cannot be!”
“It is so,” said the Ghost of Payments Future. “And because of what you have seen, Tiny Tim is dead.”
“Tiny who now?” I asked.
“Tiny Tim, he tried to pay for a doctor’s appointment but they couldn’t find a common payment methodology. He offered to pay by check but they don’t accept them, so they recommended he use Apple Pay but his card issuer wasn’t on the list. Fading fast, Tiny Tim offered to pay by bitcoin but the doctors had never heard of it.”
I listened in awe as the Ghost of Payments Future continued telling the tale. “Next he tried to pay by cash but the world had long ago gone cashless.”
“What about ACH or a wire?” I interrupted. But I could tell from the emotion on his face that it was too late.
The Ghost went on. “The doctor offered to initiate an ACH debit but told Tim he’d have to wait 3-5 days to make sure the payment didn’t reject. But Tim couldn’t wait that long for the treatment and died the next day.”
“Why did you tell me this story?” I asked now with tears in my eyes.
None of them answered. Instead the wind blew fiercely once again and I flew far, far into the sky. When I landed, I was face down on the subway platform where I had began, covered in a sea of plastic payment cards. I dusted myself off and sorted everything back into my wallet, but my metrocard was gone. Without it, I couldn’t go through the turnstile.
“What a pain in the ass,” I thought. “Now I have to go wait on the line to buy a new metrocard.” But the card readers were temporarily not working and of course I hadn’t brought any cash with me.
And that’s when it hit me. As the world has sought to make payments easier, three generations of technology being used simultaneously were actually making it harder. Every new technology is deemed to be the future but they’re not actually replacing the technologies that preceded them. Instead everything is being used at the same time but in a fragmented fashion. The Three Ghosts of Payments weren’t sure if we were 15 years in the past or 15 years in the future.
And so I have a wallet filled with more than a dozen payment cards all for different things, an iPhone 6 that can’t use Apple Pay because I don’t have the right bank, the same checkbook that I’ve been using since the 1990s, a credit card that I use regularly here and one with an EMV chip that I have to use when I’m outside the U.S., a bitcoin wallet, an ACH processing account, a merchant account, and actual paper currency that is necessary to bring around for when technology isn’t working.
To the young inventors out there thinking of the next big thing, if there is a way to consolidate all of this madness, that would be great. Tiny Tim’s life depends on it.Last modified: February 18, 2015
Sean Murray is the founder of deBanked, an 11-year veteran of the merchant cash advance industry, a casual Lending Club and Prosper note investor, the co-founder of Daily Funder, an alternative lending speaker, consultant, writer, and enthusiast. Connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on twitter.