How the cash crisis in Greece is affecting ordinary people

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Carol Hills: China’s financial woes are big, but no one’s talking about China running out of cash any time soon. That is the reality that people in Greece are dealing with. Even before the current economic crisis there, Greeks were more dependent on cash than most Europeans. Now with Greek banks closed, the lack of easy access to cash is having a huge impact on thousands of small businesses and their customers. Reporter Lilah Raptopoulos has been talking to people in and around the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. I asked her to tell me why Greeks are so dependent on cash.


Lilah Raptopoulos: There’s a few things. One is a lot of places don’t accept cards. I took a bus today to sort of pretty far out of town, they didn’t accept anything but cash. Many restaurants, gas stations, small shops, kiosks, all they take is cash. And actually, many people have been telling me that some places that do take cards are pretending their machines are broken these days because they don’t trust the banks and they’d rather get cash.


Hills: And that use of cash--the preference of using cash instead of cards--that dates way back, way before the debt crisis, doesn’t it?


Raptopoulos: It does, yeah. My dad is from Greece, from Thessaloniki, and it was quite a long time--they used to laugh at him for using credit cards in the “˜80s. But even now, people over 50, many of them have never set up debit cards. So, the other day I was in an ATM line and there was a woman in front of me who had just gotten her first bank card. She was about 55, and she was saying, “It’s so complicated. I can’t understand,” and this young teller was next to her and she was saying, “You can cook. You’re a Greek woman; you’re a wonderful cook. That’s complicated. This is not complicated.” But that’s been a problem, really. My 85-year-old aunt is going to the bank every week to collect 120 Euro. Last week, she collected it. This week they said she can’t, and so then they had to sort of try to help her set up a bank card. I know it’s hard to imagine, but the older generation, a lot of them just never knew it was necessary nowadays.


Hills: So, I know you’ve been talking to small business people and various people around. Give us an example of a small business and how it’s dealing with this cash crisis right now.


Raptopoulos: Yeah, so today I visited a farm just outside of Thessaloniki, and it’s a lettuce farm, and the man who owns it, Andonis Vezyroglou, he said that cash now sort of feels like a black market to them. Many of his suppliers are asking for cash and many of his customers can only pay in cash. And it’s difficult because if he doesn’t have cash and his suppliers from, say--he has one supplier from Holland who is asking for cash because they don’t trust the Greek banks--he may not have the cash because a bank, just like people, can’t take out that amount of money to supply it. So, he has to wait for a customer to pay him for him to then pay this company, which is so mistrustful of the Greek banks that they’re sending a man to Greece to pick up this cash and bring it back to Holland. So, they’re kind of all struggling to pay their debts and even more so because they’re afraid that there will be haircuts on their bank accounts. The sooner they can get the money through, the better for them.


Hills: Let’s hear him.


[Excerpt from audio]


Hills: So, how’s he going to deal with this problem?


Raptopoulos: You know, the good thing about their business is it’s food. People will always need food. So, you know, some people are losing 80% of their business and that’s bad, and they’re losing 20% to 25% in the past week or so, and they hope that it will stay there. The problem though with their food is that when people are pinched, they buy macaroni, they buy non-perishables, and they don’t really buy the lettuce and the tomatoes and things like that.


Hills: Reporter Lilah Raptopoulos in Thessaloniki in northern Greece. Thanks for speaking with us, Lilah.


Raptopoulos: Thank you very much.