Is a Cashless Society a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
During the 1980s and 90s, I owned a couple of Baskin Robbins stores which were mostly cash businesses during that era. On its way to our commercial bank account, the cash got counted a minimum of seven times: during the customer transaction, at shift changes, at the end of the day, when preparing the deposit, when making the deposit, etc.
Cash is certainly not always “king,” and when you think about it, cash can seem downright archaic.
Cash is still hanging in there
Yes, cash may someday go away, and in fact, it’s already close in a few countries around the world, but there’s something to be said about cash being the only survivable form of money in the event of a disaster like a giant solar flare or WWIII.
By “cash,” I mean bills and coins – not checks or debit cards, even though they’re tied directly to cash accounts. Those, in fact, are cashless options.
In many situations, cash may still be the only option for a transaction at our favorite store. Small retailers often don’t want the hassle of accepting credit cards or paying merchant fees that accompany these transactions. Further, in a cashless society, it may be difficult to pay the neighborhood kids running their lemonade stand or throw in $10 at an impromptu pass-the-hat charity event?
Some consider society’s cashless goals to be elitist. Pre-pandemic, an estimated 7% of the U.S. population was “unbanked,” i.e., with no bank accounts and with cash as their only option for daily purchases. In addition, many people are under-banked without access to banking tools like credit cards or online payment apps.
Solutions to some of these challenges are pretty clear. In time, lemonade stand kids will utilize social media-based payment accounts. Crowdfunding apps like GoFundMe and others provide on-the-spot options to support a good cause when the impromptu giving spirit moves us. Stubborn retailers will lose out on business to the point where they’ll need to provide electronic payment options.
The challenge of the unbanked and underbanked population, though, will be the last one solved as we’ll see below.
COVID Propelled the Cashless Migration
We certainly took a huge step toward a “less-cash” system during the pandemic. In 2020 we were concerned about contact transmission of the virus from currency and coins or any surface for that matter. Much of our commerce shifted to online. Many people began making all of their in-store transactions, no matter how small, with credit or debit cards because it seemed like a safer option.
Cash transactions were still possible, but soon we started seeing posted signs at store checkouts requiring an exact change or stating it might not be possible for the cashier to provide exact change due to coinage shortages. Pocket change was stacking up in containers at home instead of being kept handy in a change purse or pocket.
If it weren’t for the desire to give well-deserved, cash-based service provider tips during this period, few of us would have carried or used any cash at all during much of 2020 and 2021.
What Will Replace Cash?
A good question to ask is, are we better off without cash? And why?
In 50 years, greenbacks and coinage may indeed be relics and collectors’ items.
Our purchases are certainly tending toward digital money – carried out in a number of forms. What each of our transactions will look like will depend on what’s in our electronic wallet (e.g., a bank account, a crypto account, or a line of credit in either of those denominations) and our preferred method of linking to our accounts (credit cards, debit cards, and online payment apps).
Cryptocurrency will be the e-currency behind an increasing number of these transactions. Crypto’s foundation in distributed ledger technology makes it extremely secure and private. As of now, we’re not quite at the point where we can pay for an ice cream cone with bitcoin, but cryptocurrency debit cards tied to a crypto account are showing great promise for e-commerce and to a growing extent for in-person retail purchases, at this time mostly for high-end items like jewelry, cars, electronics, and some services.
Crypto-based revolving lines of credit in the form of credit cards are also available and soon we’ll be at the point where the distinction between crypto- and fiat currency-based cards will be blurred and we’ll have the option to choose one or the other at the time of purchase.
Online payment apps and mobile device services, like Venmo, PayPal, Apple Pay, and others, will flourish as well. These accounts (either crypto or fiat currency-based) will continue to be tied to an increasing variety of bank accounts and credit card accounts or linked directly to balances we maintain on those apps. Venmo even adds a social media element to the transactions: Spending money with friends is fun!
What About Checks?
Checks are one of the earliest forms of cashless transactions in modern times, but their use is rapidly declining. Fewer stores accept checks these days and even fewer Gen Z’ers even know how to write them … or have had to write them! Check fraud recently is way up as well. Most of us write only a handful of checks each year – for unique circumstances and not at all for day-to-day transactions.
Still, checks, or something with a similar look and feel, will always be an option for drawing on an account of any type. There will be significant fees attached to these transactions, though, given the extra steps involved in processing these payments.
Cashless Implications on Criminal Behavior
Cash, for all of its inherent inefficiencies, has the benefit of being an anonymous facilitator of commerce. Cash transactions leave no trail except maybe a fingerprint or serial number on a $50 bill. For that reason, going cashless will be bad for the business of crime. Digital footprints are almost always trackable with enough effort, especially when the user creates a vulnerability or is targeted for hacking.
Certain aspects of law enforcement will change dramatically. Rather than patrolling or seeking informants regarding drug trafficking, for example, cyber expert police officers will be safe at their computers uncovering and tracing now-discoverable money flows. “Following the money” to uncover the crime and catch the criminal will be the daily norm.
Learning from Sweden … and what I call the 100% Certainty Conundrum
Sweden is often held up as a groundbreaking nation when it comes to going cashless. Remarkably, only 1% of the country’s GDP is held in cash, compared to 8% in the U.S. Swedish retailers are allowed to refuse cash for purchases and the country is exploring developing an electronic version of their national currency (e-krona), which is a 1:1 equivalent of the cash version of their krona.
It’s important to know, that the e-krona isn’t a cryptocurrency and it’s not blockchain-based. Citizens can hold their e-krona on a card or in an app.
Recently, though, the seemingly inevitable shift to going completely cashless in Sweden is becoming significantly less inevitable. Like any kind of “all-or-nothing” technology transition, utopia inevitably meets reality, in this case, the unbanked and underbanked, who make up the last few percent of users.
The 100% Certainty Conundrum creates gates to the future in a number of ways. We see it, for example, in the “need” for 100% safety when it comes to self-driving car technology. We may be 99% there, but the technology won’t be fully embraced until that elusive 1% is accounted for (even though human-driver safety rates will never achieve that 100% standard).
In the case of Sweden’s and any other country’s cashless utopia, it won’t happen until we can achieve 100% usability and acceptance of a combination of e-currency and other cashless options. The issue of the unbanked and underbanked, the last 1-2% of the population, must be solved before any government will dare enforce a cash-free system of national commerce.
Keep in mind, that solving the equation for the final 1% becomes exponentially more difficult as we approach zero.
And the onus for a cashless economic system is truly on the government. In the U.S., some small retailers have gotten too far out ahead of the curve on going cash-free and ended up having to reverse course in the face of disgruntled customers and lost sales. Some states and major cities, in fact, have passed laws prohibiting businesses from operating cash-free, citing the concerns of unbanked and underbanked citizens.
For those people who don’t trust banks, and that becomes a much greater percentage during a recession, having cash stocked away in a secret place at home, is a comforting form of security.
For now, that means that in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and other countries, the best we can hope for is going mostly cash-free.
Does that mean we’ll never go completely cash-free? Perhaps! Progress comes in fits, starts, and occasional backward steps. If nothing else, progress is virtually always messy.