An unsuspecting casualty of the coronavirus pandemic is cash. Consumers are using debit cards and online payment apps to avoid unnecessary touching and potential transmission of the virus.
Cash was already on the outs before the pandemic. Now the move away from bills and coins has accelerated, even among older adults who are the most resistant to new digital trends.
National governments in India, Kenya and Sweden are promoting cashless commerce. It isn’t uncommon in Sweden to see checkout signs that say, “No Cash Accepted”. The United Nations and the European Union also have jumped on the bandwagon, citing payment cards as a safer alternative to cash.
Prior to the pandemic, cash transactions still dominated. An explosion of reported third-party transaction fees indicates a global shift to cashless transactions has been spurred by pandemic-related fears.
Online shopping goes hand-in-hand with cashless transactions. The New York Times cited data indicating 40 million US consumers bought groceries online during April. Tap-and-pay cards have grown in use for in-store purchases.
Sales pitches such as “no more dirty cash” are persuading increasing numbers of consumers to abandon bills and coins and adopt payment cards and apps.
The switch to cashless commerce is occurring despite a lack of evidence the virus is transmitted by an exchange of bills or coins. Sales pitches, such as the one voiced by Tappit that refers to “no more dirty cash”, have helped to propel the switchover.
Tappit CEO Jason Thomas told the Times, “The pandemic has ripped the Band-Aid off of going cashless.” He noted that reluctant merchants are getting on board with cashless commerce because consumer lines move faster and consumers tend to spend more when they pay with cards instead of cash.
The sudden disuse of cash raises concerns for central banks that still must maintain cash reserves. No one has quite figured out how a global cashless economy would function. Studies are underway to explore electronic currency to replace physical currency. Cryptocurrencies are also part of the discussion.
Consumer advocates warn cashless commerce may further marginalize low-income people, retirees and minorities with less access to digital payment options. That suggests cash will stick around for the foreseeable future, but the shape of our wallets may continue to change with more slots for cards.
The Balance, which offers advice on managing money, has summarized the list of pros and cons of going cashless.
Benefits include lower crime rates because there is less money to steal, reduced money laundering because of digital data trails, less time and cost associated with storing and depositing paper money and easier currency exchanges while traveling internationally.
Disadvantages include more exposure of personal financial information in a data breach, no fallback if hackers drain online accounts, less ability to control spending habits and limited access for people without bank accounts.
Cashless alternatives take the form of credit and debit cards, electronic payment apps such as Zelle, PayPal and Venmo and mobile payment services such as Apple Pay.