I have a memory as a boy, saving my pocket money by placing it in a special drawer, the golden pound coins collecting into a neat stack. (Although the stack never got too high to endanger its structural integrity.) I grew up in Hastings, a small coastal town in East Sussex, famous for 1066 and seaside charm. It has a reputation for being somewhat rundown and is forever “up-and-coming”.
I got my first debit card when I was 14. Later, I saved up money for a gap year, by working at a bingo hall, and I put the money into a savings account. I avoided credit cards. Back then (2007) it was still around 5% interest rates, and I remember getting £70 ($91) one year, which made me feel very rich indeed.
Skip forward to 2018 and I was living and working in Beijing, China, as a freelance journalist. All around me Beijing residents were paying for everything using just their smartphones. They would walk up to a counter of a restaurant, shop, or convenience store, and offer up a QR code for the cashier to scan. Once scanned, the online system would immediately deduct the exact amount owed from the payer’s e-wallet. No fumbling for cash and waiting for change. No swipe of a plastic card either. The transaction would take seconds.
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But I was a stubborn holdout. My friends, both Western and Chinese, would make fun of me for being so traditional – for clinging onto “dirty cash” – seeing the crumpled paper bills as evidence of my Luddite ways. But there were a couple of reasons why I kept using physical money and avoided getting into e-payments and e-wallets. Firstly, it felt safer. I wasn’t really aware of how electronic money would work on my smartphone and I feared it would somehow get easily siphoned off. Having physical cash just felt safer.
Secondly, I feared that by moving to electronic payments, and losing the greater friction of paying with cash, I would end up spending more. I was afraid that by losing the tangible, visible qualities of paper money, and the physical transaction – of fishing out my wallet, finding the required bills, and handing over the cash – I would lose all sense of how much, day by day, I would be spending.
Were these fears justified? As more and more people across the world shun cash, these are essential issues to consider.