/ 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?. 

Help us protect cash as a payment option: sign our campaign

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


The fundamental problem is that banks are not public utilities, they are profit-making businesses. It’s the drive (and commercial competition) to maximise profits that is fuelling the drive towards digital and cashless banking. Somehow this fundamental structure needs to be changed or balanced out. But how? I cannot imagine banks being run as a public utility.

Dorit Martha Berry says:
7 March 2019

Do not let us become a robotic society, the idea of just carrying a card for payment is a totally abhorrent one to me and many others. Why then, if this is the plan, are we getting newly printed notes which are slippery and quite awful to handle, new coins with commemorative etching on them, what a waste, is the whole government just constantly thinking of messing things up, without having any idea of looking ahead and planning properly; the Brexit scenario should tell us everything.

Mary Hollingsworth says:
7 March 2019

I agree with the comments already made and want to make a special plea for rural and isolated communities. The loss of bank branches has been a real problem for accessing cash, both in and out of an account. We used to have two banks but they have both closed despite promises that they wouldn’t. Fortunately, we have retained our Post Office (thanks to The Co-operative Society) which now provides some banking facilities but for many villages and small towns, even this has gone. We also have a cash machine which was free but has now started charging for transactions – a sign of things to come? If I want to deposit cash or cheques I have to drive (no bus service!) 11 miles to the nearest large town. I don’t see how we can ever become a cashless society without a massive reinvestment in infrastructure of some sort to support small transactions. I run two charities and we rely heavily on cash and cheques as owning a card reader is too expensive as the card companies take a percentage of every transaction. Also, we would lose all the casual donations of loose change which people make. I feel that the whole cashless movement is being driven with an urban mindset and the views of rural dwellers must be equally considered in any forward plans.

Iris Linn says:
7 March 2019

I wholeheartedly agree with the comments made. Iris Linn

John says:
7 March 2019

Access to cash is essential as protection from failure of other systems. I use Internet Banking and Cash as appropriate, but when Internet Banking fails I then I resort to Cash!

7 March 2019

Cashless might be OK for many, but we live in a small village with few busses, and no busses at the weekend. My wife and I are OAP’s and so feel cut off at the weekend. In our opinion we still need cash. This is all about convenience for the banks.

Anthony Martin says:
7 March 2019

A cashless society is heading towards thee biggest regret in centuries. Such a hideous system serves only the elites of a Orwellian nightmare. NEVER accept such tyranny

Andy Goodwin says:
7 March 2019

I disagree with the whole concept of campaigning for the keeping of cash. Cash is an outdated form of payment. Even taxi-drivers take electronic payment these days. Truth is they prefer it. No one can steal their takings if it’s already in the bank. Instead of getting all hot and bothered about retaining cash we should be insisting the banks sort out their IT systems so that everyone has the confidence to ditch cash altogether. Furthermore, trades people who give discounts ‘for cash’ are most probably defrauding the exchequer out of tax revenues which ultimately disadvantage all of us. A cashless society would stop this illegal behaviour in its tracks.
I can’t remember the last time I got cash out of the bank.

E C says:
7 March 2019

You are too trusting of the system, bankers and government.
Have you not seen the social credit system at work in China where people are constantly monitored by those in authority! They are already electronically controlling their behaviour linked to restriction of money. Have you not heard about the many high profile people being demonetised by PayPal, patron and even master card? They lost thousands of £ and $ when they were censored and lost their livelyhood! Now having to take legal actions to recoup! They are not finding it easy nor cheap! No issues if they were dealing in cash! Cashless society would give the government and the parasitic bankers huge control of my life. A much bigger problem than tax dodging. You think being cashless will stop illegal, immoral and unethical behaviour by bankers and people in control. I think it will be worst and much harder to see and find.
I think you over estimate the power you have to take back control. Think! how easy will it be if you changed your mind, and wanted cash back and those in power don’t?

william kirk says:
7 March 2019

I fully endorse response written by John our local banks have been reduced from 3 to 1. the two closed being controlled by one group . All they say is FOOTFALL IS THE REASON for their actions, hard luck on the older non car owners/or infirm, you are not our problem

Great to see so many first time commenters – if this is your first time here, welcome! It’s great that you’re here and that you’ve shared your experience of the role cash plays in your life. Feel free to look around and join in more conversations. We do like to hear from you!

There’s a lot of love for cash in the room, but I’m curious to know if anyone might feel the opposite? Maybe you like the ability to track your finances down to the penny from the comfort of your smartphone, or maybe you’ve had too many experiences of grubby banknotes handed back as change? If you’re keen on living in a cashless utopia, feel free to share your thoughts too.

Is Which? compiling a list of all the reasons for keeping cash in circulation arising from the various Conversations? If not, then I think it should. Sometimes new ones are reported and they should all build up to a bundle of evidence for rejecting the attempts of the banking industry [from the Bank of England downwards] to float the notion of doing away with cash.

With hundreds of ancient churches in our part of the country, usually of some historical or architectural interest and worth a look inside, we often pop in when passing if the door is unlocked. We are sometimes the only people present and if we want to buy a booklet or make a donation find that the only means of doing so is by putting coins or notes through a narrow slot in an iron box embedded in the fabric of the building. I am hoping there will not be a necessity for these simple devices to be fitted with card terminals or carry a notice giving the parish’s sort code and account number for an on-line payment. Without spontaneous contributions many churches and other historic sites would suffer financially.

Certainly are. A few of the stories you’ve shared previously are on the Campaign page: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/freedom-to-pay/, and we’re always keen to hear more.

George and Anne says:
7 March 2019

We refuse to bank on-line as our accounts could so easily be hacked. If the machines fail to operate we are stuck without cash – this happened recently and I had to exceed my card limit to pay an hotel bill while on holiday. I got stung with excess charges. As far as we are concerned cash is king.

Rod T says:
7 March 2019

Banks are closing branches at an alarming rate – to save THEM money; they want us to go “paperless” – to save THEM money. But none of those savings are given back to customers. My father is 96 years old and has never used a computer (and never will). He. like many other of his generation, don’t have PCs or online access, and don’t want to. In order to move money from his Santander account to a Halifax account he had to travel 12 miles to the nearest Santander branch; the Halifax had a branch in his home town but said it couldn’t do the transfer. This is all about bigger profits for the banks; customers are the least consideration. Any bank that values its customers and customer service could make a killing by keeping branches open and catering for people who want or need to use cash. We are told that we must have bank accounts (to pay salaries and/or pensions into, then this is the result, closed branches. Atrocious behavior.

John Heatherill says:
7 March 2019

I personally do not trust anything regarding access to my money via the internet and do not do internet banking. I was loath to use a card which did not require a personal pin code as I have heard many horror stories – bring back the good old days of cash and cheques.

Suzanne says:
7 March 2019

It is important that people still have a choice to have cash and use it. I work with the elderly and they much prefer cash. They know exactly how much they have and what they can spend. Trying to use cards, they often forget their PIN numbers or even lose the cards they have. I also think cash machines are a great idea, but they need to be more secure, i.e. not necessarily out in the open, but because many banks are closing machines tend to be outside and not monitored by cameras. This poses a real security issue for anyone who uses a cash machine. Come on, we are a leading country in the world for the likes of technology, H and S and so on. Lets now live in the dark ages with this and start to think into the future and understand the importance and necessity for many, to still have coin and paper rather than a card and the safety to get their money when they need it.

Sherrall Andrews says:
7 March 2019

I am aware that every time I use a card to buy stuff I am leaving a financial footprint which others legally or possibly illegally, others can use a) to invade my privacy , or b) potentially steal from me. I therefore use cash for most transactions

Jennifer Humphries says:
7 March 2019

Our choices are being eroded bit by bit, this will probably make the bankers richer than they already are

. . . and also lead to a massive loss of customer-facing banking jobs and the closure of even more branches [if not all of them eventually].

The experience of TfL in London, which has gone cashless, has demonstrated how a broken terminal, or an interrupted computer link can cause problems. Buses are forced to operate free causing revenue losses to TfL. It seems we still have some way to go to ensure that our IT infrastructure is up to supporting secure cashless operations.

There are also the people issues. I am an older person who is very happy to pay with my cards. However, my wife struggles with ATMs and relies on cash to conduct her financial affairs. She will go into a bank pay cash into her account then withdraw cash to top up her purse because she is unable to net off the two transactions. I know that she is not alone. Many people, particularly poorer people, can only manage her finances through handling physical cash.

I know cash is expensive to handle. I once balanced up a shop’s daily takings of over £10,000 that was mostly in cash so I know the issues. Handling a small number of cash transactions a day in a mainly cashless environment ought to be only a minor inconvenience provided there is a local place to deposit the cash at the end of the business day. However, this places us in a chicken-and-egg situation where closing bank branches drives a cashless society that results in further branch closures. We need to find a way to break this cycle while reminding businesses that cash is legal tender, meaning that it is still the medium that the law recognises for settling debts.

Linda L says:
7 March 2019

Although I do use card payments a lot for bigger purchases, cash is still needed for smaller purchases as some smaller retailers have a minimum amount they can accept on a card. Also, some independent retailers do not have card readers. Cash is also needed for giving to street collections for charities, children’s pocket money, school activities, vending machines etc. The internet is not always available/reliable for making payments. What if your card is damaged/lost/stolen? It takes time to get it replaced.

Stuart Briggs says:
7 March 2019

We see more and more banking institutions closing which makes everyday banking harder to do. As a society we are moving closer to a cashless society, with many people using online banking on their mobile telephones etc to buy goods and services. As I am retired I have already had to move banks because the bank I was with had closed many of its branches. I can see a day when there is no money used and everything will be online.

Peter Armstrong says:
7 March 2019

Our village lost it’s only bank and arranged that the post office would do some transactions. They also subcontracted out to a company to install and run an ATM. We even have a mobile Bank van twice a week for an hour.
Sounds good, but in practice, – there have been problems. The post office only accepts cheques and cash deposit, and limits withdrawal to £50. The ATM has been down for periods up to 3weeks and frequently no cash for 1-2 days. As to the mobile bank queuing in the rain is not very helpful for our aging community. Transactions frequently not possible online as they lose internet connection.
All villages should have access to at least one of the above facilities as we will never have a cashless society.
How else are we to pay window cleaners, gardener’s, cleaners, painters etc essential for helping our older population.

Arthur Johnson says:
7 March 2019

With the increasing trend to economies by banks and retailers it is going to get more difficult to access cash. In our community which is only semi rural there is the post office (opening times only) and one cash machine which is unreliable.
Old people and disabled sector is growing and we already find it difficult. Electronic means are beyond the capabilities of many of us.