/ Money

Are we sleepwalking into a cashless society?

Going fully cashless will leave millions behind – do you agree with the steps the Access to Cash Review is recommending?

This is a guest post by Natalie Ceeney CBE. All views expressed are Natalie’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Britain is not ready to go cashless. While many enjoy the simplicity and convenience of digital payments, they don’t yet work for everyone.

Our research found that around 17% of the population – 8 million adults – would struggle to cope in a cashless society.

Which? News: access to cash under threat

There is a widespread (and incorrect) perception that the main issue is with the old. In fact, the biggest indicator of being dependent on cash is poverty. Many people simply can’t take the risk of getting into debt, and cash remains the safest way of budgeting.

But we are fast moving away from cash. A decade ago, over 6 in every 10 transactions in the UK were in cash. It’s now down to just 3 in 10, and could fall to around 1 in 10 in 10-15 years.

Bank branch and ATM closures

We have an expensive cash infrastructure built for a world of high cash volumes, which is becoming unaffordable as cash volumes decline. We are already seeing cracks appearing with closures of bank branches and ATMs, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Today’s recommendations are built on a huge amount of analysis and data that we’ve gathered, not just from the UK, but also overseas.

We’ve taken into account a wide range of evidence, speaking to more than 120 organisations, including Which? and other consumer groups, as well as talking to thousands of consumers directly.

What we’re calling for

If we do nothing, we will have communities unable to access cash, and unable to spend it. We’re calling for:

A guarantee of access to cash

Cash access to be kept free to consumers

An investigation into the costs of banking cash for small businesses

A requirement for essential and monopoly services to accept cash

Rethinking infrastructure

As cash is free for consumers, we don’t tend to think much about the costs. But behind our ATMs and shops is a complex and expensive infrastructure costing around £5bn per year.

This was built for an age of high cash, and for profit. It’s now expensive to operate and, as cash declines, becoming uneconomical. If we want to keep cash viable, we need to think radically.

There are examples in Sweden, Norway and Finland that we can learn from. As their cash use has declined, they have created a joined up ‘utility’ for the wholesale infrastructure supporting cash, to keep cash viable.

We’re calling for the Bank of England to convene a group to develop a radically different model for the wholesale management of cash.

Policy and regulation

We can no longer take cash for granted. We need clear government policy on cash, a programme of work to develop digital payments which can include everyone, and a joined up oversight and regulation of cash.

Cash can no longer be seen as just a commercial issue. We believe that our recommendations will help keep cash viable for consumers, in a way which industry can afford.

But we now need action, before it’s too late – before we lose our cash infrastructure and millions are left behind.

This is a guest post by Natalie Ceeney CBE. All views expressed are Natalie’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

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Do you feel that we’re sleepwalking towards a cashless society? How could we be more prepared?


There is a sizeable chunk of society that cannot use card machines, either because of medical issue or because for one reason or another they cannot have a card. If we profess to be a caring society then those people need to be protected.

Yes, I agree with the recommendations of the Access to Cash Review.

For every person who depends on cash for some or all of their spending, there are probably two more, like me, who could manage without it but find it useful, and there is also a large percentage of small traders who – for whatever reason – want to deal in cash. The various other Conversations on this theme have rehearsed all the justifications for cash to remain in circulation. Those needs have to be serviced. I do not see why the infrastructure for supplying and exchanging cash has to be self-financing; it is all part of the mechanism that allows society to function effectively and should not be fragmented into discrete cost centres.

Even if only one million people, or fewer, are still using cash every day then it must be kept in circulation. Does anyone complain about the money spent on providing weather forecasts all day every day on several channels and media? We should treat cash with the same respect.

Maurice says:
6 March 2019

It’s our money it needs to be safeguarded

I agree with the points made by Ian and John. Businesses providing essential services must be run to serve the needs of our society.

It would be interesting to see how much the use of cards costs us, on the basis that the companies charge for each transaction and although consumers have ‘won’ the battle against card surcharges, the costs are simply passed on to customers, including those who don’t use cards. On the other hand, the banks cannot make money out of cash transactions, no doubt a factor in the push for the cashless society.

It would be useful to have a link to the Access to Cash Review in the introduction: https://www.accesstocash.org.uk

Just added the link a little further down, under ‘today’s recommendations’ 🙂

Thanks George. It’s interesting to see that Richard Lloyd, who used to be a familiar name to us, was on the review panel.

Christine says:
6 March 2019

I’m afraid it’s just to true that cash is free of cost. Our back charges 1% to pay cash in – that’s not free.

It is encouraging to see that the review recognises the cost of the infrastructure and the need to find innovative ways to continue to make access to cash as easy as possible. It is not possible – never has been – to have a bank branch, ATM, post office near where everyone lives. We need to think about those who are not so fortunate and find ways to help them gain better access to cash as well as protecting the more fortunate ones.

I am not swayed by the argument that because “A decade ago, over 6 in every 10 transactions in the UK were in cash. It’s now down to just 3 in 10, and could fall to around 1 in 10 in 10-15 years.” That therefore cash will disappear. That is still an awful lot of transactions. I guess that the trend will level off as people have become accustomed to online banking and cards, so see no reason for cash to disappear. It remains our legal tender and has many uses for many people.

I can understand some services not accepting cash – tram and bus drivers maybe; trains don’t normally take cash. You just need to be able to buy a ticket conveniently, using cash. Or maybe use cash to top up a contactless card that can be issued by local outlets.

I would also like to see it illegal to charge more for cash than for an online or card transaction; we abolished fees for credit cards as this could discriminate against them.

Good luck to this review. I hope the seemingly open-minded approach persists.

Cash is the token system used for centuries, and especially before the internet, to exchange worthless paper and metal into goods and services. The paper and metal are given their value and allocated to us as we “earn” them. The names given to these pieces of paper and metal discs, constitute our vocabulary for money and whether we have them in our hands, in the bank or on a card, this vocabulary will always be with us, and goods and services will be allied to them to establish how many of these tokens are needed to have them. Their value will be in their scarcity and whether we have enough of them to get the goods and services we want. The problem we face is in the exchange mechanism for these tokens. It is generally accepted that most purchases of any significant amount will be made using some form of electronic payment, be it credit/debit card, bank transfer or transaction firm like Paypal. There are exceptions and a few people may still like to open their wallets for everything. I don’t believe there are many like that. Smaller purchases and some small businesses, charities, clubs, market stalls and children are where the problem lies. Physical money is convenient, simple and straightforward and always has been. Electronically, the reliance on the internet and a power supply complicates these simple transactions as does the means of verifying what has been spent and accounting for it. Processing actual money has always been time consuming and labour intensive but, until now, no one has complained about doing it and, for the many reasons given in many posts here, it is both a social service and something worth doing to keep cash in circulation. It is easy to shop with cash, cards add another layer of complication to the process, even if they are quicker to swipe than handing over coins. There will be chaos if the internet fails, money may well be the only way of dealing with this on a temporary basis. If it has disappeared, we will have no alternative.

Bitcoins seem to illustrate what the failure of an electronic system can do. I have heard that the custodian of many people’s bitcoins died suddenly without leaving a password to the holding, and these bitcoins are now irretrievable to all their “depositors”.

Brian says:
6 March 2019

Far from becoming a cashless society, I think we should go the other way – become a cardless society! Cash, more cash, and only cash, like it used to be – if you can’t pay cash for it you can’t have it!

Maria Beecham says:
6 March 2019

It is folly to rely on computers and banks as we are too prone to being held hostage

I run a canteen for a local club, selling sweets, canned drinks and hot drinks and we rely on cash exclusively. We also run a raffle at our meetings, there again using cash payments. We could not manage without cash. And I am sure that there are loads of clubs and societies around the country, who would have the same problem is access to cash was stopped.

It is important for children to learn the value of money and cash is the best way to learn that you cannot spend what you do not have. In addition, the elderly and the very low paid have indicated that it is easier to budget with cash. I am also worried about being scammed when paying by card in food shops.

Mrs M Clough says:
6 March 2019

I am an elderly disabled lady and need help around the house and garden.
The friends that help me always wants me to pay them in cash.
I would be totally lost without their help so need to pay my helpers as requested.

Bank closures and removal of cash dispensers is unacceptable for older people who don’t have access to computers or rightly fear being scammed by using on line methods. When this happens the banks refuse to refund their clients.
The disadvantaged have to rely on cash to survive.
The Government should force the banks to see that cash machines are located to cover a bank closure areas. After all the tax payer bailed out the banks in 2010 and eg: RBS still require the Government to fund them.
Rural areas are often served by local shops and traders who operate in cash and need to back the takings.

Shaz Ney says:
6 March 2019

I’m happy to use cards, but I can’t count how many times the systems have failed (in shops, when parking, etc.) Sometimes the card is declined even though there’s the money in there, sometimes the pin isn’t accepted even though I’m looking at it and typing it in correctly. As a result I’ve had to get cash, so I always carry a little around with me. Also, it’s not like banks are particularly quick to get a new card out to you if yours is lost or stolen, and with bank closures everywhere, what are you supposed to do in the meantime? Wait 5-10 working days before you can buy food, petrol, whatever? Borrow from your family or neighbours (and how will they get the cash?) We need access to cash, and we need it to be free at least from our own banks, but given so many are closing, it should be reciprocal across the board. When the system is solid as a rock, THEN may be the time to ditch cash, but we’re not anywhere near that point yet.

William Rowe says:
6 March 2019

Are we sleepwalking into becoming robots for the large corporations. Why do they assume everyone can use computers for everything. Of course if we are forced to use only cards instead of cash then ultimately we will be forced to pay a membership fee for the privilege – all new innovations end up with us paying in the end and later the increases in fees also appear out of the blue. It is time the people realised that all business would cease if we stopped buying. Get back to the days when “The customer is always right” we seem to have been conned into forgetting that.

John Adler says:
6 March 2019

There are many people- some Of them vulnerable – who are not able to cope adequately with a cashless society. We cannot simply ignore their concerns. Quite apart from anything else, many of us like the security of bank notes and coins.

Britain continues to have significant numbers of elderly people who are only comfortable with cash and in essence cannot operate with without easy access to cash. Let’s hope Government can, at least for once, get something right.

I. T is not secure enough to go all out without cash to hand, every now and then you hear of a glitch or a infiltration into individual I. T systems, all counties are going more and more digital and I have always felt this to be dangerous, caution is the priority and a back up of analogue.

B M Fisher says:
6 March 2019

It may have been said before but the infrastructure for a cashless society depends on the availability of a far reaching broadband infrastructure and the consistent availability of a good signal. There are many communities for which that is a long way off. One such is upper Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales. This issue needs some joined up action between both infrastructure providers and we are certainly not near to solutions yet.

Garry Procter says:
6 March 2019

The Big Brother Society that tracks the ordinary law abiding individual, monitoring his/her expenditure is here. Sadly, it is the same government that allows major Russian, Chinese, and other criminals to money launder in the UK on an industrial scale. Restrict cards; return to cash so we all know exactly how much we’re spending

Linda Rana says:
6 March 2019

As always we do not remember that some people do not have a computer or are not computer savvy. Some do not like internet banking. I question the safety of a cashless society as your report has highlighted. Systems do break down and can be hacked. I know that the world is changing and to the younger generation it is a done deal but to the older generation and others it is not easy.

Colin Parker says:
6 March 2019

The Banks have a history of pretending to care for the “Customer” but have consistently really only made all decisions that will ensure that their profits are maximized and that their interests are always served first and the customer can take a hike!
There will be a time – very soon – that will mean that those who TRUST cash because of our age, or because of our financial circumstances will be denied the opportunity to but goods and services from our shop keeper, the local chemist, the gardener, or even give to the church plate or street beggars/performers.

And today we hear of a publican who ONLY accepts card transactions – primarily to save the time (and from that the wages) for someone to ‘cash-up’ at the end of the day – NOT because the customer wishes to pay with real money.

There is also a greater risk to us all in the potential for someone to clone, steal or otherwise to rob us using electronic means.

Please STOP the ‘cashless’ society – give US the choice.