Australia is rushing towards becoming a cashless society but not everyone is ready to wave goodbye to physical currency – and there are good reasons why.
The Covid pandemic supercharged a trend toward digital transatction that was already underway, with the use of digital wallet payments on smartphones and watches soaring from $746million in 2018 to more than $93billion in 2022.
By the end of 2022 cash only accounted for 13 per cent of Australian consumer payments compared to 70 per cent in 2007.
‘The shift towards a cashless society in Australia isn’t just a possibility, it’s already well underway,’ RMIT Associate Professor in Finance Angel Zhong wrote recently in The Conversation.
While Dr Zhong did not see banknotes disappearing completely, she believed they will become much rarer in day-to-day transactions.
Australia is rapidly going cashless with digital payments being enthusiastically adopted, especially by younger consumers
The use of digital wallet payments on smartphones and watches has soared from $746 million in 2018 to more than $93 billion in 2022
‘The functionally cashless society is where we enjoy the convenience of technology – we don’t have to go out with a bunch of cash, we can use our phone and smartwatch to make payments,’ she told Australia.
As more Australians embrace the treand a growing number of retailers are only accepting digital payments.
Major banks continue to close branches, shrink ATM numbers and are even opening ‘cashless’ branches, citing a customer preference for online services.
However, going electronic has its own sets of risks and could badly disadvantage some sections of the population.
Here are the 10 major concerns of going cashless.
1. It can leave out older Australians or others not digitally connected
Dr Zhong said the strongest adopters of digital payments were Australians aged between 18 and 29.
‘Two-thirds of them use digital wallets,’ she said.
However, many older Australians still preferred to pay in physical currency with almost one in five classified as a ‘high-cash user’.
Dr Zhong said as Australia needed provide ‘better support for other age groups to embrace technology, better literacy about systems in technology as well as financial assistance’ for those struggling with the transition to digital payments.
Those on lower incomes and new migrants also typically rely more on cash.
The use of cash is shrinking in Australia with banks closing branches and ATMs and a growing number of retailers asking for digital only payment
2. It relies on internet coverage and reliable connectivity
Rural areas with slow internet can find digital transactions challenging.
However a major Commonwealth Bank outage in July demonstrated the vulnerability of digital finance even in urban areas.
Customers were left paralysed by the technical glitch and unable to access their accounts, transfer funds or use their cards to make purchases.
Dr Zhong said governments needed to support investment in infrastructure that boosted internet coverage and speeds to smooth the way for the digital revolution.
3. Some areas of the cash economy will suffer
Charity donations given on the street are dwindling because fewer people are carrying cash and the those who beg or busk for a living face the same problem, research conducted in 2020 found.
‘While retailers and online merchants have benefited from cashless payment options, donation-seekers are left rattling an empty cup,’ wrote University of Massachusetts’ Spencer M. Ross and Auckland University of Technology’s Sommer Kapitan.
‘Aside from people carrying less cash, our research suggests another major reason is that people simply don’t expect to see beggars or buskers with a swipe machine, or a QR code or Venmo symbol on their signs.’
4. ‘Hidden’ fees
Digital transactions often attract a fee, which might not be obvious at the time of purchase.
Warwick Ponder, the former executive manager of corporate affairs and communications at eftpos Payments Australia, told Australia that Paywave devices often levied a delayed credit surcharge.
Mr Ponder advised customers to avoid tapping as much as possible, as there could be a significant period of time before the money deducted registers in their account.
Banks also typically charge a higher fee for ‘tap-and-go’ purchases than for EFTPOS, with only cash attracting no extra cost.
There are often hidden fees in electronic transactions although eftpos is not as costly as tap-and-go in this regard
5. Hacking and scams
It is estimated that Australians lost more than $2billion to online scams in 2021 – but the true figure could be much higher due to many incidents going unreported.
Major cybersecurity breaches of Optus and Medibank last year also highlighted the risk of identity theft online.
UNSW Institute for Cyber-Security director Nigel Phair told Australia that the nation ‘has to do a lot better when it comes to cyber-crime’.
‘ The Australian Cyber-Security Centre said they had about 63,000 reports (of scams) last year, I reckon that’s about a fifth of what the actual number is.
‘The ACCC had about $2billion in reported losses from scams. I reckon that’s nowhere near the right amount.’
6. Lagging legislation
Regulation of electronic payments often lags behind technological and market innovations.
Google Pay and Apple Pay are currently not subject to the same rules as credit cards and EFTPOS transactions.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers is updating legislation to change this.
‘That payments Act is actually out of date,’ Dr Zhong said.
‘We need to regulate to ensure that we have an industry-wide standard to ensure that consumers’ wellbeing and security are protected.’
7. Losing the value of money and less social interaction
Finance commentator Sarah Wells told Australia that children won’t learn the true value of money and miss out on crucial social interactions if all transactions become digital.
‘I believe it is better for children to use cash,’ Ms Wells said.
‘Giving a child $20 and taking them to a shopping centre or the movies helps them to learn to budget and helps them to make decisions by thinking more carefully.
‘There’s a responsibility in handing over money and such valuable social interaction – they learn to say “please” and “thank you” and look people in the eye.’
8. Loss of independent spending power
Ms Wells also warned that having ‘a cash-starved society’ could be bad news for those whose finances are being controlled or denied by someone else.
Ms Wells said young women who were fleeing domestic violence needed to be kept in mind when regulating digital payments.
Women in these circumstances risk being tracked by an abusive partner or being cut off from their finances.
‘We need to make sure we are not compromising the safety, education and experience of minority groups and young minds in our endeavours to legislate contemporary payment platforms,’ she said.
9. Your spending can be tracked
The loss of anonymity and privacy is a major concern for many who oppose a ‘cashless society’.
A change.org petition created by Elizabeth Hynton which rails against the ‘discrimination’ faced by those who used cash has gathered more than 5000 signatures.
‘Cash is private,’ the petition states.
‘When one pays via credit/debit card, the Government knows: what one spends their money on, how much they spend, where one spends their money and when the purchase was made, which is an invasion of privacy.’
Dr Zhong agreed that the concerns were valid.
‘(With) anything digital there is always a vulnerability it will be tracked,’ she said.
RMIT Associate Professor in Finance Angel Zhong says legislation in Australia is trailing behind developments in electronics payment
10. Loss of your and freedom of choice
This is perhaps the over-riding concern of many who oppose the cashless society.
The change.org petition argues that cash should always be an option.
‘One of the hallmarks of a free society is freedom of choice … not just what suits an organisation, but also what suits the customer!’ the petition states.
‘We can’t go on forever using COVID as an excuse.’
China presents a dystopian vision of how such control can be exercised, where people are subject to a social credit score that accrues or docks points depending on how desirable the individual’s behaviour is according to the government.
A bad social credit score can mean being blocked from buying items such as plane or train tickets.
The Reserve Bank is currently examining the benefits of a central bank digital currency (CBDC) being introduced to to Australia, which would be a ‘programmable’ currency such as China’s.
Although the RBA has stated such a currency could improve the ‘efficiency and resilience’ of payments it said one was not likely to introduced any time soon.
‘Given the many issues that are yet to be resolved, any decision on a CBDC in Australia is likely to be some years away,’ the RBA said.