Is cash really at risk of disappearing?

The Access to Cash review would have us believe that cash in the UK will be nothing but a memory as we ‘drift’ toward a cashless society. Without action, people will be left behind as the UK becomes ‘cashless’.

Gareth Shaw, Head of Money, Which?, said:
“We have been warning for years of the risk of Britain drifting towards a society where millions of people who rely on cash face being cut off – so this review’s recognition that the system is on the brink of collapse should be an urgent wake-up call.

“Government, regulators and banks must now act on the review’s recommendation to guarantee cash access for nearly half the population who consider it a necessity – especially those in communities hit by a double whammy of bank branch and ATM closures.”

The ‘convenience’ of cashless payment methods for the consumer and the ‘increasing’ costs of cash handling for the retailer are the headline reasons for this change in the status quo. Consumers may consider contactless payments to be convenient, but it is just another way of doing the same thing. As for retailers, the apparent increase in cost of processing cash can be attributed (at least in part) to fewer banks and building societies on the high street and the cost of maintaining a cash processing infrastructure.

Frequently cited concerns with moving to a cashless society fall into several categories.

  • Security / Risk

Any digital banking system is at risk of cyber attack. The current UK banking system is a multitude of different systems that have evolved over time, each with vulnerabilities. Failures in banking payment systems are unfortunately a common occurrence and the effects have been well documented in the press. Cash is impervious to these risks.

  • Financial abuse 

Vulnerable consumers can be at risk of their online accounts controlled or hijacked by abusive partners, carers or family members. Keeping budgets in cash, helps to reduce this risk.

  • Universal acceptance 

There will always be people who cannot or will not adopt cash and these can be legitimate reasons. Rural communities with limited internet access, people who are unable to use digital payment technology, elderly people who do not have the means to access online banking, or mistrust it. The unbanked, of which the AtC reports estimates there are 1.3 million of in the UK, a cashless society would create an ‘us and them’ dynamic.

  • Budgeting

Some people find cash much easier to budget with, why should that choice be taken away from them?

  • Privacy

Each time a digital transaction is made, the consumer is asking permission from the payment processor and their bank for permission to spend their money. Not only that, they have to explain how much and to whom the money will be disbursed. I understand the benefit of this for larger purchases (house, car, holiday), but not when I want to buy a cup of coffee or buy cat food in my local supermarket. One can be private and remain legitimate.

 

Whilst we may spend less today, (according to the AtC review) 97% of the UK population still carries cash. The role of cash has not diminished, merely changed. Perhaps we should stop looking at every change as something to be fearful of and instead try to understand why things are changing and where we might be in five, ten and twenty years time? If we don’t get in front of this change, then maybe we will be left behind.