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July 25, 2016

Cash: Reports of Its Pending Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

I usually chuckle when I read an article forecasting the impending elimination of cash from the U.S. payments system. It seems the frequency of these articles is steadily increasing, and I wonder why. What do these people have against cash? Yes, I can somewhat understand the argument about trying to abolish the penny when it costs more to produce it (1.7 cents) than its face value. Canada, New Zealand and Australia have done so, and their citizens' lives don't seem too dramatically altered.

There is no question that consumers continue to embrace card-based payments as an alternative to cash and checks, none more so than the millennials. Critics of cash portray it as a payment method with a number of negatives including harm to personal safety (robbery) and its being expensive to acquire or process. Yet research by the Federal Reserve through its 2013 Consumer Payment Choice Survey project shows that 89 percent of the population continues to have at least some cash, and the number of currency notes that the public holds continues to grow. Additionally, while prepaid cards have made an impact on the un- and under-banked, cash is still an essential form of payment for them.

But as the 1964 Bob Dylan song goes, "the times they are a-changin'." The survey demonstrated the potential increasing influence on the future of cash that millennials might have, as more than 60 percent of those surveyed as "cash-adverse" (they never hold or spend cash) fall into the millennial age range. But will this behavior persist as they grow older and build their financial resources? The survey results provided some conflicting data for this group that hopefully will be resolved in the next survey to be conducted in the fall. For example, while they claim to not hold or use cash, nearly one-fourth indicated that cash was their preferred payment method.

The anonymous nature of cash is often cited by governmental and law enforcement officials as a reason for using it for illegal business transactions or tax avoidance. But perhaps most importantly, cash has almost universal acceptance and, in times of natural disasters, may be the only payment method that can be used for the purchase of goods and services. The reality is that cash is the payment method used by two-thirds of consumers for transactions under $10. While vending machines and parking meters are being enhanced to accept card and mobile payments, and the prepaid gift card has eliminated a lot of $20 bills in birthday cards, it's extremely difficult for me to consider a world without cash. And I believe history is on my side. Although many new payment methods have been introduced, I don't know of any that have been eliminated over the last two hundred years. So I take reassurance as I open my physical wallet and there among my various debit and credit cards, my $23 in cash sits waiting to be spent. I suspect that cash will continue to exist for centuries after my own obituary has been written.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed