Why you should care about digital money

In early February, I shared my reaction to a Bitcoin meetup I attended and how I felt the benefits of bitcoin were both grossly undercut and out of touch with what consumers ultimately care about. I closed my post with the promise that I would return to share three reasons of my own. But, as I sat down to compile my list I began to empathize a little bit with the challenge my colleague was faced with when composing his slide.

You see, built into the bitcoin community’s DNA is a desire to transform some pretty fundamental aspects of how our global society functions. So, when someone asks us to articulate the benefits of bitcoin, what often jumps to the forefront of our minds is our passion for some pretty big and heady ideas that we think will help bring about the change we desire. So, we talk about things like the “blockchain,” “open source,” and “decentralization.”

The problem with this is that what excites us early adopters is not what will ultimately fuel the next wave of adoption. Therefore, it is critical for us to begin framing this technology in ways that the everyday consumer can more readily understand and appreciate.

Cash vs Credit

Implicit in winning someone over to the world of digital money is the need to convince them that digital money is superior to what they use today: mainly cash and credit/debit cards. That can prove to be quite challenging when you consider how useful each can be on its own.

Credit cards offer superior convenience because they free us from the constraints of physical money. They let us transact over great distances as well as the Internet, and they help us to maintain greater visibility into how and where we spend our money by eliminating the fog of spending inherent in our cash purchases. Plus, credit cards and electronic payment technologies built on top of credit card infrastructure, like Apple Pay for example, have been instrumental in digitizing our experience of money and making the experience of purchasing increasingly frictionless. The convenience of this technology is why we instinctively reach for the phone in our pocket, or a card in our wallet when buying something as large as a television, or as small as a cup of coffee. And we love it.

Cash has it’s advantages too. It is peer-to-peer, exchanging it with someone is instant and non-revocable, and there are no intermediaries taking a cut or charging a fee. Plus, physical cash greatly reduces fraud risk. And as a consumer, I enjoy the anonymity physical cash provides. As a result, it is my go-to form of payment when selling something on Craigslist, when paying my babysitter, or collecting small debts from friends.

The benefits of these payment methods, however, are all mutually exclusive. Plus, each has pitfalls as well. Most consumers don’t know or really appreciate just how expensive, and inconvenient credit cards are to merchants. Cash on the other hand and physical cash is increasingly being seen as a burden. It is something we must constantly go out of our way to replenish at an ATM, and damn it if we don’t all have jars full of loose change scattered around our homes that we can never motivate ourselves to do something with.

Cashing in on an Opportunity to Embrace Change

To reach consumers I think it is important for us to re-examine many of our past decisions which we now completely take for granted. For example, bitcoin is most commonly referred to as a digital-, virtual-, or crypto-“currency.” And while it is technically a currency, the term makes bitcoin feel more abstract and somehow less useful. Consumers don’t see inherent benefits in “currency” because it doesn’t describe what you can do with it. That is why I describe bitcoin as “digital cash.”

The term “digital” is important because it helps consumers associate all the convenience we have come to value and appreciate about electronic payments like credit/debit cards, Apple Pay, Google Wallet and other modern payment systems. Its digital-ness is what allows it to be transacted over large distances and online, what makes it easy to use, and how it eliminates the hassle of carrying around physical money.

More importantly, referring to bitcoin as “cash” helps describe its utility: it is peer-to-peer, instant and non-revocable. And if you are a merchant, there are zero costs in accepting it as a form of payment, zero fraud risk, and settlement is instant. In these ways, bitcoin functions no differently than the cash in my wallet. It’s just transmitted differently.

The Hidden Benefits of Cash

There is something else I appreciate about cash, that I think our increasingly debt-driven society has lost touch with. Where once we maintained a more intimate relationship with our money through the strict discipline and ritual of balancing our checkbooks, now we keep a safe and happy distance from our money as we swipe our credit cards, or touch our phones without ever having to worry about whether or not we actually have the money to pay for something. It is the single greatest convenience consumers have. But at what cost?

Over fifty percent of Americans carry credit card debt, and the average household has $15,000 in debt. That is 30% of the median annual household income in America. I don’t think anyone in America really intends to maintain such large balances, but it is almost inevitable given how pervasive and convenient credit cards are.

So, while I don’t pine for the days of having to balance my checkbook after every transaction (yes, I am that old), I feel we have all lost something important by eliminating simple accounting from our lives. Bitcoin and digital money at large, gives us an opportunity to reclaim this relationship with our money. And that, in the long run, could be digital money’s greatest gift to us.

“Why Should You Care About Bitcoin?”

With all this in mind, let’s return to where all this started, and let me fulfill my promise to you: articulating three reasons you can share with the everyday consumer to help them better understand why they should care about bitcoin and digital money.

Three reasons you should care about digital money:

  1. It provides all of the convenience of credit cards and electronic payments.
  2. It allows for all of the efficiency, speed, and cost savings of exchanging physical cash.
  3. It creates a more egalitarian money system with huge personal, global and societal benefits.

Ok, I admit, I kinda snuck that last one in there, but here’s the thing: in advocating for digital money we are promoting far more than a technology, or a currency. We are asking people to join a movement defined by a mission all of us in the digital money community share: a desire to reform a money system that increasingly limits personal freedom, that disproportionately favors the wealthy, and that disenfranchises and marginalizes the most vulnerable among us. To use digital money is to join this community and fulfill something I think all humans crave: a sense of belonging, and a desire to contribute to a greater good.

These three reasons are at least an improvement to what my fellow digital money pioneer offered to their audience earlier this year. I arrived at this list by fighting my urge to espouse the ideologies behind digital money, by letting go of my love and fascination for the underlying technology, and by striving to take a customer-centric point of view. If consumer adoption is our goal, then we need to connect consumers with tangible benefits. That starts by reforming how we describe digital money and its benefits to them, and continues by delivering products that help them to experience these benefits first hand.

— Byrne Reese is the VP of Product at Bitreserve, a cloud-based financial services company.

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