Cashless world: Will we be richer or poorer for it?

Ireland is gradually becoming cashless. Is the convenience worth the loss of privacy?

Ireland now ranks 10th among EU members for the number of digital transactions per capita. Photograph: iStock

Ireland now ranks 10th among EU members for the number of digital transactions per capita. Photograph: iStock

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How long could we last without money? That was the question Pricewatch asked itself at the start of February.

To be clear we weren’t asking how long we could go without buying something but how long it would take before we needed to handle cold, hard cash – and not just because we heard that the coronavirus could live on currency.

The answer was: a lot longer than we thought. Using a Leap card we were able to access public transport and our Dublin Bikes account without needing cash, while the FreeNow app meant we could hail a cab without ever stopping at an ATM. A Bleeper Bike account could be activated with our phone. And when we paid for diesel for the car we used plastic.

A big weekend shop was done with a debit card, while lunchtime sandwiches, bin tags from Centra and wine from the local off-licence were bought with a simple tap. Lotto tickets were bought through the app, and even transferring money to someone else was almost effortless and instant thanks the Revolut app, which facilitates peer-to-peer money exchanges.

The Revolut app also allowed us to use Apple Pay to cover transactions when we couldn’t be bothered taking out our wallet.

Days turned into weeks and still there was no actual money in sight. At the time of writing Pricewatch had gone more than 30 days without seeing so much as a€5 note.

Cash dethroned

That tells us that cash is no longer king, at least not in our world. But we are not alone, and the shift from physical money to its virtual equivalent appears to have reached a tipping point, according to a survey published late last month.

The research from One4All revealed that half of Irish adults now use digital banking or contactless transactions more than they use legal tender.

The study said that two out of three of Irish adults use digital payments multiple times a week, with one in four using mobile phones for payments while 43 per cent of people now believe cash is on the way out.

It revealed that Irish adults now carry an average of just €32 with one in 10 respondents saying they never carry cash at all.

The survey results showed that 67 per cent of millennials – the cohort aged 18-37 – expect all retailers, shops and bars to accept digital or contactless payments. Millennials are the also demographic most likely to pay for things using contactless or digital with 57 per cent saying they favoured such methods over cash.

People living in Connacht and Ulster were less likely to use digital banking or make contactless payments compared with people in other regions – the absence of good-quality broadband in some parts of rural Ireland may at least partly explain why only 22 per cent of respondents there said they made a contactless or digital payment at least once a day. In Dublin the percentage who use such payment methods daily climbed to 34 per cent.

While a cashless society has many advantages, it also has major downsides. It leaves a spender’s fingerprints everywhere. If you pay with cash, you can remain anonymous and untraceable and spend freely, safe in the knowledge that the only person who knows what you are doing with your own money is you.

Cash also keeps consumers in control of what they buy and who they choose to spend their money with. It is not that long ago since both Visa and MasterCard decided to block all donations to Wikileaks, robbing people who believed in what that site was doing of a way to make donations.

The same companies – or other companies – could , at least theoretically, decide that they would stop people subscribing to The Irish Times or to Netflix or whatever, and there is little consumers could do to stop that.

Obsolete ATMs

The move away from cash has seen banks exit the ATM market, with all the major ones here selling off cash-dispensing machines, which are costly to maintain and to secure. The ATM network here will almost certainly end up in the hands of other businesses, which will be able to charge more for the service, penalising those who have not gone digital.

Other issues are the absence of quality broadband in many parts of the country and the reliance on banks. In recent months both Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank suffered brief outages.

And of course some people just prefer cash. A third survey published by the Dublin Mint Office last year found that 67 per cent of people would not like to do away with notes and coins, while 88 per cent said they reckoned a cashless society would leave some people behind, including older people, the homeless or small businesses that rely on cash transactions.

But the pace of change is only accelerating. Research firm GlobalData suggests that over the next 10 years cashless payments will become even more prevalent. It has found that Finland is the furthest along the road to a cashless society followed by South Korea, Norway, Sweden and China.

A separate report from Deloitte, published last year, has said that at least one Nordic country will be “de facto” cashless by 2025.

Ireland is also well advanced in the race to remove money with the GlobalData report placing the country eighth overall in terms of electronic transactions, and top of the pile when it came to frequency of use of cards.

Payments on Visa cards – debit, credit and prepaid – account for over a third of Irish consumer spending and, according to Banking & Payments Federation Ireland’s most recent data, consumers here made almost 1.5 million contactless payments a day in the third quarter of 2019.

Rise of contactless

Contactless payments make up over half of all face-to-face transactions made with a Visa card, and Ireland now ranks 10th among EU members for the number of digital transactions per capita.

“Digital payments are increasing in popularity, and we expect the trend to continue,” says Philip Konopik, Visa’s general manager in Ireland. “Technology is driving this growth as the contactless terminals roll out across Ireland, which not only support transactions made by physical payment cards but also with devices like smartphones or smartwatches. A number of businesses are also embracing the trend by going completely cashless, accepting only digital payments made with a card or mobile device.

“All the signs point to an increasingly digital future, but in Ireland, we are quite far from a cashless society in reality. For example, there’s still over 30 per cent of personal consumer expenditure in cash in Ireland compared with just 2 per cent in Sweden. We will continue to see a preference towards digital payments, but ultimately it’s about facilitating more choice in how consumers pay for goods and services.”

The change has affected charities, too, as people carry less cash. That has prompted some to move into the digital sphere.

Before Christmas, St Vincent de Paul launched a “tap to donate” initiative, which allows people to tap their debit or credit cards or their phones and watches on devices held by collectors to donate to the charity.

Its fundraising team has given 80 tap-to-donate machines to [branches] across its eight regions in Ireland, and it is said to be an “ongoing strategic roll-out to facilitate donor choice” and a move to “future-proof an important revenue stream, with more and more people not carrying cash”.

This is particularly true with supermarket or shopping centre collections, where SVP volunteers are frequently told “Sorry no money, just a card”.

“In the short term, we don’t expect total donations to increase significantly through the use of the tap-to-donate machines,” says Nichola Mullen, SVP’s head of fundraising. “It is early days in our use of the units, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is an overall slight increase in donations at events where the machines have been used, and that about a third of donors opted to use the machines.

She said there was a cost to the charity whether machines or traditional buckets were used, but over time the cost of the machines would be recouped. “The machines also provide additional security and reduce the level of cash which has to be held.”

The development agency Trócaire has also rolled out new “cashless” Trócaire boxes, which are available in 10 Supermacs outlets across Ireland. The initiative, in collaboration with Visa, is the first nationwide retail tap-to-donate rollout in Ireland.

Lent bonanza

The traditional Trócaire Box is Ireland’s largest annual fundraising campaign and raises about €5 million in cash donations each year. About 30 per cent of all public donations to Trócaire are made during the six weeks of the Lent campaign each year, so the overseas development agency has looked to incorporate a cashless approach into its fundraising approach in order to maintain critical income for the organisation.

With the popularity of contactless payments continuing to rise and to ensure that Trócaire can raise the largest amount of donations possible, the overseas development agency has partnered with Visa to develop its tap-to-donate box to provide an alternative to cash donations.

“We have always received a strong proportion of our support in cash donations, particular during Lent, when our Trócaire boxes are in homes and schools across Ireland,” says Trócaire chief executive Caoimhe de Barra. “As Ireland changes and embraces contactless payments, charities have to keep up with donor behaviour.”

READERS’ VIEWS

I never have cash on me and I’d happily live in a card-only/digital payments world. Only problem is, sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re “really” spending money, in the same way it does when you’re handing over actual cash for payment. Jen Hogan

I would NEVER trust the bank being totally in control of MY money, although cashless might not be as bad now as more ways to pay with bitcoin & always age old things of value such as gold/diamonds etc. Elaine Campbell

I spent five days in Sweden last summer and have no idea what their currency looks like: it was card all the way. James Gaffney

I can’t get over the number of people saying they rarely have cash. Do none of them give to charity collectors? I use both cash and card but I try to always have some money to throw into buckets. Vivienne Kelly-Keane

I live in Amsterdam, and it is very rare to pay anything with cash here. Mary Johnson

I went back to cash last year and saved a fortune. Coronavirus will, however, make me use the card a little more for small purchases, though, as I don’t want to handle lots of cash & tapping seems more hygienic (that may be just in my head) but cash all the way for saving. Deborah Curran

Cash keeps your buying private, card purchases allows banks to know your spending habits, thus enabling them to sell your private business. Cash is king. – Willie Holmes

I never have it. Unless I have to take a taxi in Dublin, and then it’s the bane of my life trying to find an ATM (usually late at night, in heels). Elaine Lavery

Spent two weeks in Vancouver and BC last summer. Used only cards, added tips at the machine. Worked really well. Eibhlin McGarry

Don’t remember the last time I used cash anywhere ... Probably weeks ago. Jade Wilson

Use cash all the time. No, not happy to have a world w/o cash because it offers basic, essential privacy. A world of cards/digital means govt & corporations can profile you in minute detail & understand your movements & actions, including personal health info, finances, etc. Karlin Lillington

A banker’s dream world is a world without cash. They charge you to lodge money to your account, they charge you for having your account, they charge you every time you use your card to spend your own money. The only way to avoid them is to use cash for everything, which I do. Conor Murphy

Hate cards, am still old school “If you don’t have it, don’t spend it” Irish & loathe algorithms that map spending patterns. Enjoy the fact that no one west of Berlin can calculate change, yet kids in Lebanon can work out USD and Lebanese pound LBP exchange rates at 7 years old.Shelley Deane

CASHLESS FINLAND: WHAT’S IT LIKE?

So what is a world almost completely devoid of cash actually like? Paddy Reynolds has been living in a world free of money for almost four years since he moved to Finland with his Finnish wife and young baby.

“I honestly can’t remember the last time I used cash,” he says. “It is a real rarity and it is almost frowned upon among Finnish people. They will pass comment if they see you with money. I have no idea when I last went to an ATM.

“People here are more comfortable giving their bank details when it comes to dealing with the health service or with the social welfare people, and then they just tap their cards everywhere. Almost every – shop, pub, cafe, whatever – has a terminal to tap. It’s not like Ireland, where some pubs only accept cash.

“Sometimes people use cash in flea markets or when buying things second-hand on Facebook, but that’s really it,” He says.

He accepts that digital-only transactions leave a trail of spending data behind. “I know that everything leaves a footprint, but they probably know where I am anyway because they can track it on my phone, so I’m not overly bothered by that. I don’t think I have anything to hide.”

He is the public relations officer for the Helsinki GAA team, which uses a contactless machine to fund-raise and sell T-shirts. “I don’t see many charity collectors on the street, and we don’t have the same level of homelessness that exists in Ireland, so you don’t see as many people looking for change.”

When pressed about the a State or bank’s ability to control a person’s spending in a digital world, he concedes it could be an issue. “I would be a bit concerned that a bank or a government could control what I spend or could pay too much attention to where I’m buying my coffee or what type of camera equipment I am buying. That is none of their business – it’s my money.”

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