Are we moving towards a cashless society?
Daragh Cassidy
Head Writer

Here we take a look at cash use in the Irish economy to investigate whether we are moving to a cash-free society.

The writing on the wall for cash has seemingly been on the cards for years. An increase in the use of contactless payments, the move towards e-commerce and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on spending habits have led many to suggest that cash is fast on its way to redundancy. 

However, evidence suggests that it’s not so certain. 

Despite clear signs that cash usage has fallen throughout the pandemic, research shows that cash as a whole is nowhere close to extinction. 

The evidence around it can be confusing, which is why we’ve put together this piece to fully examine whether a cashless society is likely, or if concerns around it are more bark than bite. 

The effects of Covid 

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic had a big impact on cash usage in the wider economy, which had been relatively steady in the years prior. 

Although contactless cards were introduced in 2011, and despite the introduction of mobile payment services like Apple Pay and Google Pay a few years later, ATM usage was remarkably stable throughout the 2010s. 

However, data from the Irish Central Bank shows a marked decrease in the volume and value of ATM withdrawals immediately following the onset of the pandemic, as restrictions limited in-store spending with cash and people had hygiene concerns around handling notes and coins.

ATM transactions plummeted in the wake of the first lockdown, falling from over 10 million transactions in February 2020 to just over 4 million in April 2020, with the amount being withdrawn falling by €600 million in that time. 

However, that doesn’t tell the full story. 

Despite ATM transaction levels not reaching their pre-pandemic levels, they have levelled off at a rate of two-thirds of what they were, suggesting that although a proportion of the population has transitioned over to a mostly cashless lifestyle, there is still a sizable and consistent contingent who prefer to use cash. 

It’s important to note that while ATM levels remained steady before the pandemic, there was a noticeable upward trend in Point of Sale (POS) i.e. card transactions. Between August 2015 and August 2019, there was a 213% increase in the number of POS transactions, from 43 million to 157 million a month. 

However, the value of these transactions only increased by 173%, from €2.1 billion to €3.7 billion a month, which suggests that contactless and debit card payments were taking the place of cash for everyday, small purchases. 

The pandemic seemed to hasten this transition. The number of POS transactions has risen dramatically from 2019 to 2022, growing by 169% in those three years alone and by 362% since 2015. Similarly, the value of these transactions rose by 170% since the pandemic and 296% compared to 2015.          

Demographics

While cash is still used by a significant proportion of the population, its use varies depending on a number of factors. Data on actual cash usage is hard to come by, so it’s necessary to rely on surveys for indications, which aren’t always the best reflection of trends. 

Nonetheless, a Department of Finance survey of 1,500 adults nationwide between February and April of this year found that: 

  • One-in-five use cash solely when purchasing goods.
  • This number is highest amongst those who are 55 years or older and those who live in rural areas. Almost 40% of 65 year-olds and over are using cash as their primary payment method. 
  • 19% preferred to pay using a smartphone. The majority are under 35 and live in Dublin. 
  • Contactless was preferred by 42% of 18-24 year olds. 

Contactless payments are rising

According to data from the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland (BPFI), which analyses payment data from all major Irish banks, contactless payments have risen from a paltry 16 million transactions in Q1 of 2016 to 268 million in the third quarter of 2022, representing €4.4 billion worth of transactions. 

Immediately after the pandemic, contactless transactions remained relatively stable, which can be explained by the shutdown of the economy. However, with the first easing of restrictions, the data shows that between May and June of 2020, contactless payment volumes rose by 137%, while their value rose by 140%, with 14.6 million more transactions spending over €237 million more.  

This can be easily explained by the fact that public health restrictions at the time heavily stressed reducing contact with surfaces, and many retailers moved to contactless-only payment options. But the steady rise to its high point today shows that contactless has caught on and is here to stay. What’s more, the increase in the contactless payment limit from €30 to €50 means consumers can use it for more purchases.  

But cash circulation is increasing

What’s interesting is that in the wake of the pandemic, the stock of cash in circulation actually increased. This is something that has been seen in other times of financial and political uncertainty, such as the Great Recession of 2008, as cash serves as a store of value in the wake of banking mistrust. 

Fabio Panetta, a Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank (ECB), revealed in a June 2021 speech that although the volume of cash being lodged at central banks and commercial banks had fallen by around 20-25% in the euro area, there was a “huge rise in the demand for euro banknotes”. 

There was an increase of €190 billion, or €550 per EU citizen, between March 2020 and May 2021, which represented a 5% rise on the normal issuance volumes of the previous five years and an 8% increase on the expected growth for 2020. 

Panetta also noted that only roughly 20% of cash is actually used for transactional purposes, with the remaining 80%, roughly €1 trillion, being held as an asset. This owes to cash’s position as the most liquid form of equity, its use outside of the eurozone for currency trading and its function as an emergency form of savings in countries with a mistrust of the banking system. 

Benefits

Despite what seems like a rapid move towards the digitisation of our currency in the past few years - with some estimates stating that the pandemic sped up the digitalisation of our economy by up to seven years - cash still holds an important and enduring role in the workings of our society. 

  • Cash is the most secure payment method in regards to privacy. While digital payments always leave a chance of fraud, or tracking, cash remains the most anonymous payment type, which suits consumers who like to keep their finances to themselves. 
  • Cash is also more inclusive than digital payments - it requires no technology or hardware, and is readily available and easy to understand. A move towards a fully digital payment system could exclude a whole cohort of the population, such as the elderly, from effectively being in control of their finances. 
  • There are also a number of merchants whose business relies on cash - such as market vendors, hospitality workers and some forms of casual or irregular work. Merchants only accepting cash also avoid the fees associated with card payments, which for popular POS systems like Square are 1.75% for card payments and 2% for contactless. 

Negatives

Of course, there are downsides to cash in comparison to card and contactless payments. 

  • With card payments going directly from and to bank accounts, budgeting both for consumers and businesses is much easier, cutting down time spent counting cash and lodging notes and coins. It also negates lodgement fees in banks, which can range from 0.45-60% for notes and 2-3% for coins. 
  • Cards, while being more li  able to online fraud, reduce an individual’s risk of physical theft or loss, with cards being easy to cancel and contactless payment methods having safety measures that suspend the card if fraudulent payments are suspected. 
  • Cash that is stored outside of a bank also rapidly loses value in the face of inflation, which we are seeing more and more in the past 6 months. Digital money parked in savings accounts will be able to avail of rising interest rates, which although are unlikely to keep pace with inflation, will lose value less quickly than emergency cash reserves. 

Is cash still king?

While cash has had its heyday, it is showing no signs of dying out completely. There remains a sizable portion of the population who exclusively use cash, and there’s a raft of businesses and workers who rely on it. 

Naturally, more and more are making the switch over to contactless and electronic payment methods, which is helped by digital-only banks such as Revolut or N26, and other digital-only offerings like Clear Mobile and GoMo for mobile operators. But, cash seems here to stay and likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

Easily compare current accounts on bonkers.ie

If you’re someone who prefers using cash over card, it’s vital that you make sure you’re with the bank that best suits your needs. 

You can compare both traditional and digital current accounts with our easy-to-use comparison tool

Before making a decision, you might find it beneficial to take a look at the following helpful articles:

You can stay up-to-date with all the latest banking news with our blog and guide pages. 

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