You’ve probably been prepared for the coming of a cashless society since Y2K. For the young ones among us, that’s the year 2000.
Even if you’ve never heard of the Y2K phenomenon and all the supposed futuristic aftermath, you’ve probably experienced a cashless life in some way or another.
You might be one of those people who rarely even carry or use cash. You might spend your day ordering food, catching shared-ride services, and buying whatever you need — all without cash.
With the rise of cashless payment options like Apple Pay, Zelle, and similar contactless payment methods, you might think a cashless society is inevitable, if not already here.
Plus, the rise of cryptocurrency (i.e. bitcoin, litecoin, etc.) makes it seem like it’ll be just a matter of time until you can use your bank-connected subdermal microchip to check out at the grocery store.
Before you schedule your microchip implant, you should know that there are problems with a totally cashless society that you may not have considered.
Here’s why a totally cashless existence still might be further off than you think.
But first, what is a cashless society?
What is a cashless society?
It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a monetary system that would get rid of any physical forms of money. This could include both paper money and metal coins.
Why a cashless society?
Advocates of a cashless society believe that it could be more convenient for both consumers and retailers to operate without physical currency. Consumers would be able to continue to pay for goods and services even if they are out of cash — whether they’re between paychecks or just without cash at any given moment. Retailers would benefit by giving these consumers cashless ways to purchase goods and services.
Other benefits for retailers using a cashless operation is eliminating the man-hours it takes to reconcile their registers and make deposits at the bank. For some operations, having and moving around a lot of cash could present security issues too.
Sizable security threats might require investing in precautions like a monitoring system or armed security guards which all add to a business’s operating costs.
1. Access & equity
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with a totally cashless society is access.
A cashless existence means that your money is tied to a balance in a bank account or on a credit card. Today a large portion of the population is “unbanked” or “underbanked.” They don’t have full access to the traditional banking system, so a cashless existence could be even more challenging or expensive for them.
You must have access to the internet
In order to live in a cashless society, you must have consistent, reliable access to the internet to be able to move money around in your accounts online. Checking balances, making payments, and receiving deposits all require internet connectivity.
What if you don’t have consistent, affordable access to the internet? This could be the case for those living in developing nations or people who just cannot afford internet access to manage their financial affairs online.
Some people use cash to help them budget
There are also people that use physical cash to help them better manage and budget their money. If they rely on physical money to mark boundaries around what they can spend, a cashless system could pose many problems to managing their money. By doing away with cash, this population might find it difficult to manage and budget their income with a digital payment system.
Some just don’t have the ability to get consistent internet access
Finally, we have to also consider people who have disabilities or other extenuating circumstances that make it more difficult for them to have constant internet connectivity. People who have mental or physical health problems could have issues with internet access and may have difficulty managing or accessing their digital money.
In all instances, poor internet connectivity would make it difficult for people who rely on a cashless existence to move money in and out of their financial accounts. Without access to physical money, this would likely cause a great deal of inconvenience to people in those situations.
2. Security and privacy
As electronic methods of payment become more common, so do security breaches. Identity theft has become more sophisticated and invasive than ever. As we move to more cashless methods of payments, there are even more opportunities for fraudulent activity in these digital realms.
Even though retailers and the financial companies that support their payment activity are coming up with more effective ways to stop security breaches, they still tend to be a few steps behind the fraudsters. In a cashless world, this problem could multiply as the number of people who depend on their digital identity to support a cashless lifestyle increases.
Financial security and privacy issues tend to go hand and hand. Even in the absence of security issues, financial privacy is compromised in a cash-free financial system. Digital forms of banking record every transaction and can provide detailed information about your spending habits and daily activities.
Though you may not feel the need to have this type of information kept under wraps, there are many situations where it makes sense to have some extra layers of privacy around your financial transactions.
3. Institutional abuse
The government would control all our money
In a totally cashless environment, there would be no alternative currency to depend upon if digital banking became expensive due to excessive fees or other economic forces.
Government regulations that control factors like deposit requirements interest rates, etc. could cause banks to increase their operating costs. And these costs could then be passed on to consumers who wouldn’t have a lot of options about how they can do business.
Banks could charge high fees
With banks and payment processors having a monopoly on how business is transacted, they could also potentially abuse their powers and charge exorbitant fees to consumers who do not have access to alternative ways to pay for goods and services by boost banking profits.
Perhaps one overlooked side-effect of a cashless society would be how crime could increase. We’ve already touched on cybercrime and identity theft, as well as access and equity.
In a cashless world, there’d inevitably be a portion of the population that would inevitably be unable to participate in a totally digitized payment environment.
In this case, it’s quite possible that people would resort to creating their own black market systems of currency and bartering. In a cashless society, the government would want to limit this type of activity and could even make “off-grid” transactions a crime of sorts.
If the government deems the usage of cash illegal, it could also increase the amount of crime and criminals who are prosecuted for doing business outside of the boundaries of the cashless protocols.
Looking around, there are many indications that we are headed towards a cashless society. The phrase itself implies some sort of externally-controlled, dystopian financial existence in which none of us will be able to escape.
The fact of the matter is this: most of us have already voluntarily opted into this system and have found it more convenient to handle our financial matters this way. Whether or not we will all be forced to participate in a cashless society will depend on a number of factors that will continue to be explored and researched in the coming years.
But our eyes are wide open at this point.