If you're looking for a self-improvement task in this pandemic era, try teaching yourself to use contactless payments with your phone or "tap-to-pay" credit and debit cards.
Any germaphobe will tell you that the surfaces of bills and coins have always been gross. And handing your credit card to a cashier who has the sniffles and a hacking cough? Even in pre-pandemic times, also gross.
Now, COVID-19 has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to advise using touchless payments whenever possible in the brick-and-mortar world.
Americans have been relatively slow to adopt touch-free payments even though they're more convenient and secure than swiping credit and debit cards. But maybe hygiene will be the tipping point as people seek a solution for, well, yucky money.
"I think the pandemic is a strong impetus to change," said Jodie Kelley, CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association. "I think it's going to stick and accelerate further. As people get used to it and understand how to do it and find that it's simple and convenient, then they're not going to shift back."
Consumer interest in contactless payments has spiked during the pandemic.
Since January, no-touch payments have increased at 69% of retailers surveyed by the research firm Forrester on behalf of the National Retail Federation. And two-thirds of retailers surveyed now accept some form of no-touch payment.
Learning to use contactless payments might be awkward at first, and some of your favorite retailers might not be equipped to accept them. The point is to give it a shot the next time you're not in a rush in a checkout line that can handle contactless payments.
"The first time I went to pay with my phone, I didn't quite know how to do it," Kelley said. "I felt a little silly trying to figure it out. But once I figured it out, I loved it."
As people try to return to normal and encounter in-person payment terminals more regularly, here are three ways to experiment with contactless payments and avoid dirty currency and much-touched payment terminals.
TAP TO PAY
True, the word "tap" doesn't exactly scream contactless. But "tap to pay" credit and debit cards really only need to be within a couple of inches of the payment terminal. The cards have little antennas inside.
How to tell if your payment card has contactless capability? It will have a logo that looks like a sideways Wi-Fi symbol of radiating waves. Retail payment terminals that accept contactless payments have the same symbol.
These cards don't require a smartphone to complete a contactless payment, and you don't have to use a PIN. Nine of the top 10 U.S. credit card issuers are actively distributing new contactless cards to customers, Visa has said.
"For people who are not used to engaging with technology, I would say first look at your card, see if it has the symbol. And if it does, the next time you're at a retail location, all you have to do is touch that card to the terminal," Kelley said. "It is incredibly straightforward. I encourage people to try it."
With this option, you call up your wallet app and hold your phone near the terminal, and your phone will ask for authentication. That's the normal unlocking procedure with your phone, whether punching in a code or using thumbprint or face identification. Many smartwatches work, too, as long as they have the required technology, called NFC, or near-field communication. The most popular services are Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay.
Phone payments require a little prep work before you get to the checkout counter. First, you must enter your payment card information into your mobile wallet app. Then, the card is saved and available to use.
TOUCHLESS PAY AT THE PUMP
Many retailers have mobile apps that let you pay on your phone and bypass in-person payment completely. In those cases, you typically would get items delivered or visit the store for curbside or in-store pickup.
Another way to use a retail app is at major gas station chains. The apps (download them at an app store) let you identify which pump number you're at, then authorize you to use it. You fill your tank with gas, and the charge goes to whatever payment method you identified in the gas-station app.
Just be sure to clean your hands after using the pump nozzle.
IS IT SECURE?
As you beam your next payment to a retailer's checkout terminal, you might wonder, "Will I have my credit card number stolen?"
The nontechnical answer is that it's safer than the old method of swiping your card. That's because the card or phone sends encrypted payment information to the terminal - it essentially masks your real credit card number. Even if the payment information was intercepted, it would be useless to a thief.
"It's an incredibly safe way to pay," Kelley said.
These days, in more ways than one.