Of all the lessons my father taught me about money, “counting cash” is the only one that stuck.
You might be thinking, How hard is it to count cash? You start with the value of one bank note, and with each additional note, the number becomes larger. Voila, cash counted, right? But when I talk about counting cash, I’m not talking about adding up a few frayed bills in your wallet or keeping tabs on what’s left of the holiday money Grandma gave you. I’m actually talking about this:
You see, there’s an art to counting cash. One that requires practice, according to my father. When I worked in my family’s grocery store, I spent much of my time counting cash from the register, learning how to arrange bank notes, curling them between my fingers so they couldn’t be stolen from me and moving my thumb so I could swipe through the bills quickly. I got good enough that I could detect an authentic bill from a fake one by feeling its micro-cotton threads. “You count in tens,” my father explained, training me to count while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on the store.
The goal was to know by heart exactly how much went in and out of the cash register at all times. By the end of each workday, I had to know that all the account books were balanced and in order.
In pop culture, counting cash is often associated with shady activities, like drug dealing or money laundering. Having enough cash in hand to count it suggests you’re hiding something from the law — or the taxman. In court, video evidence of cash counting has been used to prosecute people who supposedly committed financial fraud. In the Netflix series Top Boy, a British drama exploring the rivalry between two drug kingpins in East London, a digital money counter is used to count cash.
But for many first- and second-generation immigrants, whose families owned grocery stores, takeout joints, laundromats and other small-service businesses, counting cash wasn’t just daily accounting — it also served as a reminder of our precarious existence in the West.
After all, my father’s affinity for cash came from a history of displacement. As a refugee from East Africa, he understood the impermanence and volatility of owning homes, businesses and assets. Cash, to him, represents resistance and stability. To this day, he insists I carry at least some with me when I go out. “When you’re holding cash,” he says, “you can make the decisions and call the shots.”
When he was building up his business, keeping cash meant he could pay for emergency repairs, deliveries and cultivate business relationships between suppliers. To him, bank-transfer apps like Venmo feel too detached and confusing. “Paying cash in hand means you already know the agreement, the terms and conditions,” he explains. It’s the reason why, even though he has multiple bank accounts and investments, he still keeps neat piles of cash in his drawers.
Other first- and second-generation immigrants had similar experiences when it came to counting money. My friend Jason, for example, who currently works as a music producer in London, grew up working at his family’s Chinese takeout spot. “Learning to count cash was really important to my parents, even though I didn’t understand why,” he reflects. Because his customers often paid with bills, he had to be aware of the cash flow — but having cash also meant that his family could wire money back to their relatives in Beijing without the Chinese government knowing. The cash cycle was “a reminder that a whole community helped us set up the restaurant,” Jason says. It connected him to his international family — people he rarely saw in person but always knew about based on how much money was being sent to them.
Indeed, counting money facilitates what University of California, Irvine anthropology professor Bill Maurer calls a “psychosocial” relationship with cash. Handling bills creates an “embodied currency that lives through communities,” he describes. Put in more simple terms, counting money isn’t just about the monetary value of the bills. Cash represents the bonds and historical lineages of diaspora communities.
Like me, Jason doesn’t really heed his dad’s advice when it comes to carrying cash. He prefers a slim wallet with a debit card, credit card and cash card to make daily purchases. But that also reflects how our generation views money. Both Jason and I have jobs and salaries, and the money we make and save isn’t going to extended family across the world. Moreover, our generation is taught that keeping excess cash on hand is personal-finance sacrilege. If we want to retire, we should invest it in an index fund where it’ll accrue compound interest and beat inflation.
Still, counting cash is something I’ve never forgotten how to do, and I’m still adamant that I can count as fast as any machine.