The image shows a zoomed-in shot of a pile of cash of all different currencies from around the world.
Credit: Jason Leung via Unsplash

Where would we be without cash?

By Rothery Sullivan

There are many negative implications to becoming a cashless society, no matter how convenient Apple Pay may be.

Due to Covid-19 and the increase of contactless technology, we live in a time where pretty much all payments are cashless. Many businesses don’t even accept cash, and some are afraid to touch it due to the germs it’s known to hold. Whether you’re going out to eat or out shopping, you’ll find that many restaurants “prefer contactless payments”, while some shops have signs posted that read “card only”. When the spreading of a virus is at stake, it makes sense that people would want to take precautions; afterall, money is “filthy”. On the flip side, though, the cashless society we are moving towards is exclusive and puts the safety of some at risk.

In the UK, the card-only way of living is harmful to businesses who remain cash-only. I rarely carry cash on me, and if I do I never have more than a tenner, so when I walk past a coffee shop or store that says “cash only”, I don’t go in. I’m not the only one who feels this way, too, as seen through the fact that cash-only businesses are bleeding customers and revenue. A cashless society discourages people carrying cash on them, which in turn negatively impacts businesses who choose not to accept cards, such as hair salons, small cafes or street vendors. There are many reasons a business cannot accept cards, including a lack of sufficient internet, under-the-table workers or location. It is not reasonable to expect small businesses to have a card machine if it does not fit into their business model to do so, and yet a cashless way of living makes this a requirement.

Moreover, our digital society is becoming exclustory to working class people. People who receive payment in the form of cash-in-hand typically come from lower-income families – this informal compensation is easy to use in small businesses, and allows workers to make as much money as they want on a week-to-week basis. Many students have experienced this form of payment in their life because it’s typically seen in minimum-wage hospitality jobs. For those who get paid primarily in cash, living in a cashless world is not only inconvenient but harmful. Because it’s difficult to find shops that accept cash, those who get paid in cash are forced to get a debit or credit card, which isn’t possible without an address. Furthermore, in recent years the association of “dirtiness” with cash inevitably has spread to those who use cash; after living through a pandemic where we are taught to be hyper-aware of cleanliness, when someone pulls out cash it’s hard to not immediately think of how many germs it contains. 

“For those who get paid primarily in cash, living in a cashless world is not only inconvenient but harmful.”

This “advancement” of the digital age is even more detrimental to those who cannot get a debit card due to a lack of address or are unemployed. This situation is specifically harming the homeless population. Some rely on cash donations to buy basic necessities or pay for shelter for the night, but due to people no longer carrying cash on them, donations have severely decreased. Moreover, the homeless population has been affected by the fact that donations to charities have decreased due to the lack of cash – when someone asks for spare change, many of us have nothing to give, even if we want to. A card-only way of living is privileged, excludes those most in need, and impedes our ability to financially help others. 

The effects of a card-only way of living are clear from the Ukraine conflict. Visa, Mastercard and American Express have suspended payments in Russia after the Ukraine invasion. As people rush to long lines outside of card machines, it’s clear how contingent digital currency is on larger corporations. Although I support the decision by these companies, I couldn’t help but think of what this decision demonstrates about our current way of living. Under a capitalist state, money is more than just a number – it is an accumulation of work, time and energy. It’s frightening to think that we rely on tiny plastic cards to access this important part of our livelihood. A card-only society is fragile and inaccessible.

“It’s frightening to think that we rely on tiny plastic cards to access this important part of our livelihood…”

Of course, contactless payments provide many benefits. During the pandemic, this form of payment has helped to cut down on the spread of the virus and protest those working at restaurants and till-operating jobs. Credit cards also provide security for payments and help customers easily keep track of their purchases. Contactless payments are quick and convenient, especially if you have Apple Pay or Google Pay wherein you don’t even need to carry a wallet – all you need is your phone. However, the convenience of accessing all your money with the tap of a card or the press of a phone button may seem great, but it also makes us less aware of the amount we are spending. Without seeing the physical money pass us by, it’s hard to mentally be aware of how much we’ve drained our account. And, although contactless payments do provide an accessible method of payment for many, it should not be the only form of payment that exists. 

The solution is clear: all shops should accept cash. If we want to ensure that our cities and small towns remain accessible to those of all financial backgrounds, we cannot move to an exclusively digital age. If things continue on the path they are on, we are looking towards a cashless future, which will unproportionally harm those from lower-income backgrounds. Not all progress is digital, and sometimes the old methods work just fine. 


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