The article of New York Times (May 2) titled “Biden shares tales of loss with military families” quotes the line in Joe Biden’s 2007 memoir - “I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in.”

The Vice President lost his wife and 13-month-old daughter in a car crash in 1972.

The article reads:

“On Friday, Biden told the military families how low the crash had brought him. “I probably shouldn't say this with the press here, but - no, it’s more important - you’re more important,” he said. Biden had actually told the story before, on page 80 of his 2007 memoir, “Promises to keep.” “I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in,” Biden wrote.”

As I’m unfamiliar with the phrase, “cash it in,” I consulted online dictionaries:

Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t register ‘cash it in’ but ‘cash in on sth‘meaning ‘‘to get money or another advantage from an event or situation, often in an unfair way.’

Oxford Dictionaries registers ‘cash sth in’ meaning ‘convert an insurance policy, savings account, or other investment into money.

Neither of the above definitions seems to be applicable to the above line.

Merriam-Webster doesn’t register ‘cash it (something) in.’

Google Ngram shows the linear increase of the incidence of the usage of “cash it in” since circ 1920.

What does “cash it in” in Mr. Biden’s “I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in,” mean? Is the phrase, ‘cash it in’ used ofen in this way as a popular idiom?

2 Answers 2


Cash it in means give up on or surrender. So you can cash in an insurance policy or investment by surrendering it and getting back any value. It's also from the cashing in of chips at a casino when you stop gambling and take any remaining money

  • 6
    A little more context would help, but Biden may well have meant this as a euphemism for the ultimate giving-up of suicide.
    – Andrew Leach
    May 26, 2012 at 22:12
  • 3
    @AndrewLeach: +1 for the real answer. You ought to promote it to real-answer status. I would if I were you.
    – Robusto
    May 26, 2012 at 23:35
  • @mgb I take the nuances of your answer, “give up (to suicide)” - eventually surrender to temptation of suicide himself - and Andrew Leach’s answer, “ultimately giving up of suicide” – stop short of commiting suicide - differently. Are you saying the same thing? Which of interpretations is closer to Biden’s intent? May 27, 2012 at 3:54
  • 1
    @Y: It depends on the context; the phrase could be used either way. Perhaps despair might drive someone to give up on life, and commit suicide. Others might succumb to alcoholism, and get fired from their jobs when they start missing work. Others might go into a deep depression, or become hard to live with, leading to a divorce. You could to allude to a host of such negative consequences by saying, "All these people decided to cash it in" – in their own individual way. The notion is: their resiliancy has been broken, whether they ultimately took their own life, or gave up in some other way.
    – J.R.
    May 27, 2012 at 10:03

mgb has explained the origin of the expression. A little more context would be useful in this case, but Biden may hve meant this as a euphemism for the ultimate giving-up, that of suicide.

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