The words “cash” and “money” are interchangeable, but in an age of invisible systems that do anything (and just about everything) for you, surely using tangible money has become rather passé. Why be weighed down by coins, or struggle to sift through banknotes, when you can simply swipe that innocuous, all-powerful plastic rectangle and escape all the fuss?
On one hand, going cash-free is certainly good for the environment. We save on the paper and energy that goes into churning out notes and coins – the Bank of England estimates there are £71 billion of their banknotes currently in circulation. That’s a lot of paper. The good news is that it’s become more sustainable in recent years, with the UK leaving behind cotton-paper, replacing it with the more durable, more hygienic, more secure polymer notes, with a carbon footprint 16% lower than paper. They are also waterproof, trivia fans. Nevertheless, no carbon footprint is better than some carbon footprint, so cards are still preferable.
Most obviously, bank cards are just so easy to use. Where shops offering contactless payment via credit card or mobile phone used to be a minority, now just you can shop about anywhere without worrying that they’ll say “cash only, please”. Asides from The Lamb and Flag, that is. They even only take card payments for snacks on British Airways flights! If that isn’t a sign that we’re headed for a cashless world, I don’t know what is.
Going cashless is decidedly in at the moment. Tatler magazine has affirmed that it’s something of a power-move. And to some, keeping up with trends is reason enough. But be warned: the credit card as a status symbol has the potential to divide. A bank card is disturbingly defining: right there, unalterably printed, is your name, alongside that of a particular bank (who banks there? What do they offer?), on a certain type of card (who designed it? What colour is it? How heavy is it?), all of which communicate your financial status, and by extension say something (however lamentable) about you. That’s a lot more information than most people are comfortable waving around when popping out for milk. The worst part is that people feel entitled to judge you for it. Raised eyebrow at restaurants, or snide “funny, these cards don’t usually get declined” from hoity-toity checkout staff . So in a world where we strive to eradicate elitism, do we really need another silent class marker?
The most terrifying aspect of it is psychological. Research shows that the subconscious reaction triggered by cash and card payments differs significantly: with bank cards, you don’t feel that you are losing money. Whereas the physical act of handing over cash gives us a feeling of loss, swiping a card elicits no such response. It may even be empowering. And as a bona fide card user, that sends chills down my spine.
Today, in our rampantly consumerist society, bank cards undeniably make sense. The environmental and convenience aspects are certainly steps forward. But with every innovation come new challenges, especially for people who struggle to keep up. Many elderly people still rely on cash, and not all of them can master a self-checkout as effortlessly as a Fresher in a hurry. What’s more, the threat of online scammers and credit card fraud looms large – your card details, like your personal information, are probably much more accessible to everyone else than you think.
Food for thought, I say – and how would you like to pay for that? Cash or card?