The Pros and Cons of Moving to a Cashless Society

Close up father and daughter paying with smart phone contactless payment at plant shop counter
••• Hero Images / Getty Images

A cashless society might sound like something out of science fiction, but it's already on its way. Several powerful forces are behind the move to a cash-free world, including some governments and large financial services companies.

However, no society has gone totally cash-free just yet. In addition to logistical challenges, several social issues need to be addressed before society can give up on cash entirely. The benefits and disadvantages below can give you an idea of the myriad of effects going cashless can have on money and banking as you know it.

Benefits
  • Lower crime rates because there's no tangible money to steal

  • Less money laundering because there's always a digital paper trail

  • Less time and costs associated with handling, storing, and depositing paper money

  • Easier currency exchange while traveling internationally

Disadvantages
  • Exposes your personal information to a possible data breach

  • If hackers drain your bank account, or you experience technical issues, you'll have no alternative source of money

  • Those without bank accounts will struggle to keep up with evolving cashless technology

  • Some may find it harder to control spending when they don't see physical cash leaving their hands

Benefits of a Cashless Society

Those with the technological ability to take advantage of a cashless society will likely find that it's more convenient. As long as you have your card or phone, you have instantaneous access to all your cash holdings. Convenience isn't the only benefit. Here are some other benefits.

Lower Crime Rates

Carrying cash makes you an easy target for criminals. Once the money is taken from your wallet and put into a criminal's wallet, it'll be difficult to track that cash or prove that it's yours. One study by American and German researchers found that crime in Missouri dropped by 9.8% as the state replaced cash welfare benefits with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

Automatic Paper Trails

Similarly, financial crime should also dry up in a cashless society. Illegal transactions, such as illegal gambling or drug operations, typically use cash so that there isn't a record of the transaction and the money is easier to launder. Money laundering becomes much harder if the source of funds is always clearly identifiable. It is harder to hide income and evade taxes when there’s a record of every payment you receive.

Cash Management Costs Money

Going cashless isn't just convenient. It costs money to print bills and coins. Businesses need to store the money, get more when they run out, and deposit cash when they have too much on hand. Spending time and resources moving money around and protecting large sums of cash could become a thing of the past in a cashless future.

International Payments Become Much Easier

When you travel, you may need to exchange your dollars for local currency. However, if you're traveling in a country that accepts cashless transactions, you don't need to worry about exchange rates or how much of the local currency you'll need to withdraw. Instead, your mobile device handles everything for you.

Disadvantages of a Cash-Free World

Depending on your perspective, going cashless might actually be more problematic than beneficial. Here are some of the major downsides associated with a cashless financial system.

Digital Transactions Sacrifice Privacy

Electronic payments aren't as private as cash payments. You might trust the organizations that handle your data, and you might have nothing to hide. However, the more information you have floating around online, the more likely it is to wind up in malicious hands. Cash allows you to spend money and receive funds anonymously.

Cashless Transactions Are Exposed to Hacking Risks

Hackers are the bank robbers and muggers of the electronic world. In a cashless society, you're more exposed to hackers. If you are targeted, and somebody drains your account, you may not have any alternative ways to spend money. Even if you’re protected under federal law, it will still be inconvenient to restore your financial standing after a breach.

Technology Problems Could Impact Your Access to Funds

Glitches, outages, and innocent mistakes can also cause problems, leaving you without the ability to buy things when you need to. Likewise, merchants have no way to accept payments when systems malfunction. Even something as simple as a dead phone battery could leave you “penniless,” in a sense.

Economic Inequality Could Become Exacerbated

Unless special outreach efforts are made, the poor and unbanked will likely have an even harder time in a cashless society. If smartphone purchases become the standard way to transact, for example, those who can't afford smartphones will be left behind. The U.K. is experimenting with contactless ways to donate to charities and homeless individuals, but these efforts may not be developed enough yet to substitute cash donations.

Payment Providers Could Charge Fees

If society is forced to choose from just a few payment methods, or if one app becomes the standard payment app, the companies who develop these services may not offer them for free. Payment processors may cash in on the high volumes by imposing fees, eliminating the savings that should come from less cash handling.

The Temptation to Overspend May Increase

When you spend with cash, you recognize the financial impact by physically taking the cash out of your pocket and giving it to someone else. With electronic payments, on the other hand, it’s easy to swipe, tap, or click without noticing how much you spend. Consumers may have to rethink the ways they manage their spending.

Negative Interest Rates Could Be Passed Onto Customers

When all money is electronic, negative interest rates could have a more direct effect on consumers. Countries like Denmark, Japan, and Switzerland have already experimented with negative interest rates.

Dropping the interest rate is typically a move to stimulate an economy, but the result is that money loses purchasing power.

According to the International Monetary Fund, negative interest rates reduce bank profitability, and banks could be tempted to hike fees on customers to make up that deficit. In 2020, banks are limited in their ability to pass on those costs because customers can simply withdraw their cash from the bank if they don't like the fees. In the future, if customers can't withdraw cash from the bank, they may have to accept any additional fees.

What Does a Cashless Society Look Like?

Without cash, payments happen electronically. Instead of using paper and coins to exchange value, you authorize a transfer of funds from a bank account to another person or business. The logistics are still developing, but there are some hints as to how a cashless society might evolve.

Credit and debit cards are among the most popular cash alternatives in use today. Cards alone may not be enough to support a 100% cashless society. Mobile devices may instead become a primary tool for payments.

Electronic payment apps, like Zelle, PayPal, and Venmo, are helpful for person-to-person payments (P2P payments). In addition, bill-splitting apps allow friends to split their bills easily and in a fair manner.

Mobile payment services and mobile wallets like Apple Pay provide secure, cash-free payments. Many nations that use cash sparingly have already seen mobile devices become a common tool for payments.

Cryptocurrencies are also part of the discussion. They’re already used for money transfers, and they introduce competition and innovation that may help keep costs low. However, there are risks and regulatory hurdles that make them impractical for most consumers, so they might not be ready for widespread use, yet.

Examples of Cashless Societies

Several nations are already making moves to eliminate cash, with the push coming from both consumers and government bodies. Sweden and India are two notable examples, with two different outcomes.

Sweden

It’s not uncommon to see signs that say “No Cash Accepted” in Swedish shops. According to the European Payments Council, cash transactions accounted for just 1% of Sweden's GDP in 2019, and cash withdrawals have been steadily declining by about 10% a year. Consumers are mostly happy with this situation, but those who struggle to keep up with technological developments continue to rely on cash.

India

The Indian government banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in November 2016, in an effort to penalize criminals and those working in the informal economy. The implementation was controversial, in part because roughly 99% of those banknotes were eventually deposited. The fact that the banknotes were deposited means criminals weren't punished for hoarding untraceable cash, which had been the intent of the move. The Economic Times cited the Reserve Bank of India as it reported that electronic transactions increased temporarily, but cash returned to pre-demonetization levels by the end of 2017.

While these two examples had varying levels of success, both countries struggled to address how the marginalized will fare in a 100% cashless society.

Article Sources

  1. British Broadcasting Corporation. "India Scraps 500 and 1,000 Rupee Bank Notes Overnight." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  2. European Payments Council. "Sweden: Cashless Society and Digital Transformation." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  3. IZA: Institute of Labor Economics. "Less Cash, Less Crime: Evidence From the Electronic Benefit Transfer Program," Page 2. Accessed June 10, 2020.

  4. The Guardian. "'Sorry, I've Only Got My Card': Can the Homeless Adapt to Cashless Society?" Accessed June 10, 2020.

  5. International Monetary Fund. "Back to Basics: How Can Interest Rates Be Negative?" Accessed June 10, 2020.

  6. Wells Fargo. "Q&A on Negative Interest Rates." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  7. British Broadcasting Corporation. "India Rupee: Illegal Cash Crackdown Failed – Bank Report." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  8. The Economic Times. "A Year After Note Ban, Cashless Economy Is Still a Distant Dream." Accessed June 10, 2020.