Cashing In

Michael Flack

A FEW YEARS AGO, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and traveled around the world. It was fascinating to see how people lived, worked and—more important—ate.

I sampled the cuisine of every country I visited. There was goulash in Hungary, hummus in Israel and escargot in France. In each location, I tried to learn how to ask for “the bill, please” in the local language. It’s “kérem a számlát” in Budapest, “חשבון בבקשה” in Tel Aviv (pronounced “khesh-bon be-va-ka-sha”), and “l’addition, s’il vous plait” in Paris. The smile on the server’s face was well worth the small effort of learning a few words of the local lingo.

In each case, I used a credit card to pay the bill. Note that I didn’t say pay the “check.” Outside the U.S., a check is that piece of paper old farts sign promising to pay someone else a certain amount of money. While the concept of using a credit card is ubiquitous worldwide, the actual use of one is far less consistent.

In Nordic countries, credit and debit card use is so pervasive that a law was passed in Sweden to ensure people could still get cash from a bank. The law’s purpose was to prevent the country from going completely cashless, which could be a problem during an electricity or internet outage.

Canada is also a prodigious user of credit cards, being named the “world’s most cashless country.” At the other end of the spectrum is one of the most advanced economies on earth, Germany. Often, when I asked for “die rechnung bitte,” I was politely informed that a kreditkarte was not accepted. I asked a Berliner why, and he informed me—in impeccable English—that “Germans like to feel their money.” I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but I think it had to do with Germans not trusting credit and liking to control their spending through the use of cold, hard währung—cash in English.

Germany’s bias against credit cards is so pronounced that it actively worked to prevent the abolition of the 500 euro note. It appears that in Germany, a businessman’s need to settle up after taking a large group of clients out for expensive schnitzel and schnaps had trumped concern that large bills might help facilitate terrorism. The 500 euro note is unsettlingly known as the “bin Laden” in Germany because of its link to terrorism financing. In 2019, Germany and Austria became the last countries to stop issuing the 500 euro note.

This German-American begs to disagree with the preference for cash-driven transactions. He loves his credit card for three obvious reasons. One, I can easily track my spending. Two, I don’t have to carry a large number of forints, שקלים or euros. Three, saving 2% with my Capital One Venture Card rewards me with a discount on every transaction.

Recently, I discovered another reason to love my credit card. Capital One offers the ability to use virtual credit cards. What’s a virtual credit card, you ask? Well, through a browser extension that I loaded on my good-enough HP computer, I can shop online without giving merchants my actual card number. Instead, for each online purchase, my team at Capital One creates a one-time virtual credit card number just for me.

I have found a virtual credit card has two benefits. First, the virtual card number is specific to each merchant, which provides me with an extra measure of security. If someone steals my virtual card number, it’s useless to the thief because it can’t be used again. This also eliminates the subsequent hassle of having to replace a stolen credit card.

A second benefit is it allows me to sign up for various introductory and promotional offers without worrying that I’ll be automatically re-upped. For example, I just received a free month of music from Spotify, with subsequent months billed at $9.99. I used a virtual credit card to sign up. The next day, after listening to the Boz Scaggs album, I locked the virtual card so it couldn’t be used again. I enjoyed 30 days of unlimited tunes without having to worry about remembering to cancel my subscription.

I used this same trial-offer technique to binge-watch Outlander on Starz for free. That Caitriona Balfe is a very good actress. I used the virtual card again to charge the “Top 12 Wines” with “BONUS Bottles & Glasses” from the WSJ Wine Club. The Alambrado Malbec 2020 was particularly juicy and jammy, by the way.

Currently, Citibank, Bank of America and Capital One offer virtual credit cards. If you carry a card from one of them, you definitely need to avail yourself of the service.

Michael Flack blogs at He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. Check out his earlier articles.

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