Being Blind: Dealing With Money

In the comments in a thread at
my friend Crystal’s blog, I mentioned that I’ve always preferred using paper money over credit and debit cards.

I like knowing exactly how much I have to spend, and there’s no danger that you won’t be able to make a transaction because the card reader is down.

But keeping up with money, especially paper money, can be tricky when you can’t see it.

One way is to fold different denominations in different ways, so that they can be told apart by touch. Here’s the system I learned shortly after I lost my eyesight:

  • One dollar bills are not folded. They go in the wallet flat.
  • Five dollar bills are folded in half end to end, the way most people fold money.
  • Ten dollar bills are folded top to bottom, making a long, thin strip.
  • Twenty dollar bills are folded end to end like fives, then folded top to bottom to make a small rectangle.

I don’t usually carry anything bigger than a twenty, but if I did, I’d think of another fold. Maybe I’d fold the bill end to end like a five, then bring the folded edge down alongside the bottom edge to form a triangle.

Or maybe I’d use a paperclip along the top edge or on one end.

I’ve heard of other folding methods, though I don’t know them offhand. There are also special wallets with compartments for each kind of bill. Some people use envelopes.

As with most things where blindness is concerned, there is no One True Way. Find a system that works for you and rock it.

All the Same

This is all well and good if you can tell the bills apart in the first place. US currency is all the same size, and there are no tactile markings to let blind people distinguish different denominations.

There are various ways to get around this.

I’m lucky enough to live with three sighted people I can trust to help me sort my bills. If I didn’t, I could ask a teller or customer service representative at the bank for help when I cashed a check or made a withdrawal.

In a store, you can ask the cashier to count back your change. (Or you can just do what I do, which is to fold the whole stack in half and tuck it into my wallet to sort later.)

Some blind people carry devices called currency readers, which scan all or part of a bill and identify the denomination. These are usually small enough to fit in a pocket or purse, and sometimes even on a keyring.

Finally, if you have a smart phone or other device, there are apps which can scan and identify currency. I frequently joke that my smart phone is smarter than I am, but this is one app I’ve actually managed to download and use, and it works really well.

The US Department of the Treasury is supposed to be taking steps to make paper currency identifiable, but they’re not there yet. In the meantime, they’ve distributed electronic currency readers to blind and visually impaired citizens in order to help them identify their money.

I don’t know if the program is still open, but if this is something you need, it might be worthwhile to check.

Identifying coins

US coins can be distinguished by touch, though it may take practice.

From smallest to largest:

  • Dimes are the smallest and lightest, and have a ridged edge which distinguishes them from pennies.
  • Pennies have a smooth edge and are slightly bigger than dimes.
  • Nickels also have a smooth edge, but they are significantly bigger than pennies.
  • Quarters are slightly bigger than nickels and have a ridged edge.
  • Dollar coins are bigger than quarters and the ones I’m familiar with have a smooth edge.

I’m not sure about half-dollar coins and older dollar coins, but it’s pretty rare to run into them in everyday situations.

Paper or Plastic?

Credit and debit cards are an alternative to cash, and a lot of people use them.

In a store, I usually use the card reader with help from whoever I’m out shopping with. If you’re alone or don’t want to go that route, the cashier can scan it for you.

In a restaurant, you can ask the server to run your card and to help you fill in the tip and sign the receipt.

One blind lady I know has memorized her 16-digit credit card number for placing orders over the phone. (If you do this, also memorize the 3-digit security number on the back of your card.) This would probably work for online orders, too, though I haven’t tried it.

I don’t write a lot of checks these days, but sometimes I need to pay a bill by mail or want to keep a record of a payment I’ve made. When I write a check, I use a plastic template with cut-outs to help me fill in the proper spaces. I got mine from my social worker, but I don’t think they’re expensive to order.

Online banking is probably a great resource if you’re good on the computer. I say “probably,” because we haven’t taken that step yet. The one time I tried to fill out an online form to receive a bank payment, I got so boggled that the lovely person trying to pay me finally offered to send a paper check instead.

These are some of the ways I and other blind or visually impaired people I know handle money. I’m sure there are others out there as well.

What about you? Do you prefer paper money or is the magic plastic your weapon of choice? What tips or tricks do you use to keep track? Tell me about it in the comments!


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