Going cashless is a divisive topic. It’s meant to be more convenient and reduces crime. But opponents are concerned that governments and financial companies will have unwelcome insight into our spending habits — cash effectively provides anonymity and privacy in transactions. This is why some see decentralised cryptocurrencies as the world’s future cashless systems.
It does seem however that the global trend is towards empty wallets (literally speaking). Even Hasbro have released a no-money version of Monopoly. Here are just some of the places you’re unlikely to need cash in the next few years:
Sweden is one of the most cashless countries in the world. In 2016, barely 1% of the value of all payments in Sweden was paid in coins or notes. Some expect to see this figure dropping to 0.5% by 2020. Shops and businesses are legally allowed to refuse cash payments, and even 900 of Sweden’s 1,600 bank branches don’t deal in any cash. This quick adoption of card payments is likely to be connected with its digital savvy: Swedes enjoy some of the best IT infrastructure in Europe and Stockholm was the birthplace of iZettle, a card reader for small businesses. So ubiquitous is Sweden’s preference for cashless transactions, even Churches and street-sellers accept card payments.
We can assume all this has led to a reduction in bank robberies, but not everyone is happy. Cash Uprising is an organisation looking to prolong the use of cash and so protect the 10% of the population who rely on cash, like the elderly. They’re directly challenging Björn Ulvaeus (yes, of Abba fame) who has become an outspoken campaigner for a cash-free society, after his son experienced a break-in and he learned of the criminal world’s love of cash. Some wonder if the technology behind cryptocurrencies could support the move to a cash-free society, while also allowing the “unbanked” — those who can’t get a bank account — to join the system.
(By the way, this has now become one of my favourite videos. Though Sweden was a pioneer in automated teller machines (ATMs), it has become increasingly difficult to access cash particularly in rural areas. In this clip, the town of Skoghall celebrates its new ATM opening. I’ve read that the lyrics “Weee haveee a neeew ATM” are sung in place of “Always look on the bright side of life”. If someone Swedish can confirm this, you’d make me very happy)
Making coins is an expensive activity. In some cases, the cost to produce a coin is more than its designated worth. This was the case for the 1 cent in Canada, which was scrapped in 2013 after its material value was found to be worth one and half times its face value.
South Korea is one country looking to save the $40 million and more it spends each year in producing coins. However, rather than scrapping just one coin, they’re looking at steps to remove them all. In April 2017, they launched a trial where shoppers were offered a top-up on their T-Money card rather than being handed their change in coins. T-Money is a highly popular pre-paid card used in cities across the country for public transport. However, its popularity has led to it also being accepted in taxis, convenience stores, and even theme parks. These pre-paid cards are one of the reasons South Korea is already a largely cash-less society, with only around 20% of transactions being made in cash.
If South Korea did go on to remove its coins completely, it would be the reverse of recent events in Belarus. After 20 years without them, coins were reintroduced in 2016.
Out of 20 of the world’s top economies, China has experienced the highest growth in cashless payments over the last five years. The vast majority of people use two systems, AliPay and WeChat Pay (built by Chinese giants, Alibaba and Tencent) and scan QR codes to pay for almost anything.
In the western world, QR codes (short for “quick response”) stalled after an initial enthusiastic reception. For a time, the unattractive black-and-white squares plastered everywhere (even headstones). They did not take off; jarring placements and errors (such Heinz ketchup redirecting you to porn) meant they quickly became a joke and were widely withdrawn.
In China, they had a different set up. While people in the US and Europe had to download special apps in order to scan QR codes, the already popular messaging service, WeChat, increased adoption by embedding a QR code reader into its app. As WeChat has 963 million (!) active users, that’s not a market you want to miss out on. QR codes are now everywhere across the country, apparently even accepted by beggars and buskers. The universal nature of QR-code payment in China is even affecting other countries. In 2017, the number of Japanese stores accepting AliPay doubled as stores adapt to increasing demand from Chinese tourists.
It will be interesting to see how the tourism industry responds. To use WeChat Pay or AliPay, you need a Chinese bank account — for some foreign travellers, this means they can be left high and dry where cash is declined.
It’s not only highly developed countries that are adopting digital payments; some communities are going cash-free because they have to. Can you imagine needing wads of cash in your bag just to buy a few groceries from the shops? This is the case in Somaliland, a self-declared republic in East Africa.
Here, USD$1 is equivalent to around 9,000 Somaliland shillings, but the highest denomination note is only 5,000 shillings. Rising inflation has meant that its now not uncommon to see large quantities of cash stacked up in piles by street vendors, or hauled around in wheelbarrows by shoppers. This may become a rarer and rarer sight: despite being one of the poorest areas of the world, most adults in Somaliland have a SIM card and so mobile banking is increasing. You can find a Zaad account number on the wall in most shops in the region — Zaad being the mobile payment service from Somaliland’s biggest mobile operator, Telesom — and many people prefer the convenience of a quick mobile transaction to counting out note after note. Compared to a monthly world average of 8.5 mobile transactions per citizen, Somaliland residents complete 30 payments from their phones each month.
Because Zaad transacts only in US dollars, some say it is contributing to inflation in the economy and creating a divide between civil servants paid in shillings and those in the private sector who can be paid in US dollars. But they may be fighting against a wider trend. One in 10 African adults have an active mobile money account. M-Pesa, a mobile payment service launched in Kenya in 2007, now has over 30 million users in 10 countries. There’s no doubt mobile payments are on the up across sub-Saharan Africa.
OK, so the UK isn’t as advanced as other countries in terms of adopting digital money. However, in 2015 the policy unit of former Prime Minister David Cameron was allegedly considering making Britain cashless by 2020. This idea didn’t make the election manifesto, potentially because it would not have sat well with the traditionalist party base. Instead Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne decided to have a referendum on Brexit. This didn’t work out well for the two of them either.
Card payments are continuing to rise. In 2016, the number of card payments in the UK overtook the number in cash for the first time. A report by ING showed that 21% of those surveyed from the UK would go completely cashless if they could. However, cash remains an important utility for many people. According to the Bank of England’s Chief Cashier, 2.7 million people rely almost entirely on cash transactions. And we have just got the new Jane Austen £10 note, so maybe cash shouldn’t be going anywhere for a while…
What’s your take? Cash for life or prefer to travel like the Queen? (She’s cashless – except for Sundays)