Why you’ll always need cash

People have been predicting the demise of cash for nearly 50 years. Will it happen?

Wilfredo Lee/AP/File
A wallet containing cash and a Visa card in Surfside, Florida (Feb. 2, 2011).

In snow-swept Sweden, the rise of mobile payments is making cash so sparse that some bank robbers have been left with nothing to steal.

But in the U.S., that day probably won’t come anytime soon.

People have been predicting the demise of cash for nearly 50 years, says David Stearns, professor of money and technology at the University of Washington. As banks began adopting computers and credit cards made their appearance half a century ago, many predicted the elimination of paper currency. “We read in the mid-’60s about how cash [was] going to go away in a decade,” he said.

“Well, that didn’t happen.”

Not sold yet on mobile payments

It’s true that more people are trying mobile payments. According to a study by research firms PYMNTS and InfoScout, 24% of respondents had used Apple Pay in June 2016, up from 13% a year earlier. But during that same period, the number of people who “rarely consider using Apple Pay” jumped from 23% to 34%. In other words, Apple Pay attracts first-timers but has a hard time convincing them to stay.

What’s more, cash remains widely popular. A 2014 study by the Federal Reserve showed that cash is used to complete 40% of transactions, most of them less than $20. And a solid 30% of consumers also listed cash as their preferred way of paying.

If anything, it seems mobile payments will become just one more way to pay.

Plenty of places take only cash

Odds are that in your town there are a few cash-only restaurants or shops. Indeed, 55% of small businesses in the U.S. don’t accept plastic, according to a survey by financial software company Intuit.

Accepting credit cards can cost a business up to 4% per transaction, says Mallory Duncan, general counsel at the National Retail Federation, and mobile payments like Apple Pay can be just as expensive for merchants.

“If [mobile payments are] done in a way that simply replicates what credit cards do, they’re going to suffer from the same sort of disfavoring from merchants as credit cards,” Duncan says.

Currency’s other value

It’s not just necessity that binds us to cash. From the tooth fairy’s quarters to bills received on birthdays, cash can also be sentimental. It can even convey a nation’s values.

Just look at the attention paid to the recent decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Barbara Howard, founder of Women on 20s, a group that advocated the change, says that placing perhaps the most famous of American abolitionists on our currency reveals “a transition in our consciousness.”

Cash is more than a way to pay for stuff, she says. “[It’s] how we project ourselves to the rest of the world.”

Amber Murakami-Fester is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: amufe@nerdwallet.com.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.

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