The Pros and Cons of a Cashless Society

What do we gain and lose when cash is no longer king?

The pros and cons of moving to a cashless society

The Balance / Caitlin Rogers

A cashless society might sound like something out of science fiction, but it's on its way. Many present-day financial practices and transactions already happen without cash, and many financial institutions, service companies, and even governments are proponents of the shift.

Key Takeaways

  • Many countries are moving towards a cashless society, in which all financial transactions are electronic.
  • In addition to simply eliminating the costs and hassles of managing currency, going cashless may also reduce certain types of crime.
  • The downsides of going cashless include less privacy, greater exposure to hacking, technological dependency, magnifying economic inequality, and more.
  • Credit and debit cards, electronic payment apps, mobile payment services, and virtual currencies in use today could pave the way to a full cashless society.

What Is a Cashless Society?

A cashless society is one where cash—paper and coin currency—isn't used for financial transactions. Instead, all transactions are electronic, using debit or credit cards or payment services like PayPal, Zelle, Venmo, and Apple Pay. Many countries are moving in this direction, but it's difficult to tell which ones will eliminate cash altogether.

In addition to logistical challenges, several social issues need to be addressed before a 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
  • Reduced crime rates without tangible money to steal

  • Digital paper trail, and less money laundering

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

  • Easier currency exchange while traveling internationally

Disadvantages
  • Exposes your personal information to a possible data breach

  • No alternative source of money in the case of technical issues or hacker activity

  • Technological learning curve

  • Lack of control over spending without a physical reminder

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 mint coins. Businesses need to store the money, get more when they run out, deposit cash when they have too much on hand, and in some cases, hire companies to transport cash safely. Banks hire large security teams to protect branches against physical bank robberies. 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 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 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 unable 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 UK 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 might not offer them for free. Payment processors may cash in on the high volumes by imposing fees, which would eliminate 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. 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: Cards are among the most popular cash alternatives in use today, but cards alone might not be enough to support a 100% cashless society. Mobile devices could become a primary tool for payments instead.
  • Electronic payment apps: 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 fairly. Fintech companies like Stripe, Adyen, and Fiserv support business-to-consumer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B), or what they now merge into account-to-account (A2A) online payments in a reliable and speedy fashion.
  • Mobile payment services: These services, along with mobile wallets like Apple Pay, provide secure, cash-free payments. Many nations that use cash sparingly have already seen mobile devices become common tools for payments.
  • Virtual currencies: Cryptocurrency is already part of the discussion. Crypto is used for money transfers, and it introduces competition and innovation that may help keep costs low. However, there are risks and regulatory hurdles that make cryptocurrencies impractical for most consumers, so they might not yet be ready for widespread use.

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% per year. Consumers are mostly happy with this situation, but those who struggle to keep up with technological developments continue to rely on cash.

Sweden is gearing up to become the first cashless nation in the world, with an economy 100% digital by 2023.

India

The Indian government banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in November 2016 in an effort to catch criminals and those working in the informal economy. The implementation was controversial, in part, because these notes made up 86% of currency in circulation. However, 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 had 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 would fare in a 100% cashless society.

The Bottom Line

With the many technological and societal moves towards digital and virtual financial transactions, cash currency is becoming less and less common. However, the shift to a fully cashless society has many potential drawbacks, and only time will tell whether cash holds a special niche.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What happens to the cash in circulation if a society goes cashless?

Most countries have a department within their governing body that regulates the printing and distribution of currency, as well as its destruction. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has the power to issue money, but the actual printing (and yes, shredding, too), is handled by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing within the Treasury Department.

Who wants a cashless society?

A cashless society would primarily benefit certain businesses. While some individuals prefer using debit and credit to cash for convenience, businesses benefit from processing fees when consumers use their apps and services to send and receive payments. Handling cash is also expensive, so moving to cashless payments will also save businesses money and make transactions easier to track.

Article Sources

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