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Hitting the Brakes on the Cashless Society
"Reverse ATMs" is a term I learned from reading my colleague Oz Shy's new working paper, "Cashless Stores and Cash Users." At venues that don't accept cash at the register, the patron puts cash into the reverse ATM and a loaded prepaid card comes out. Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, for example, is one of the latest venues to adopt this practice.
Speaking of "reverse," I'm sure you know that some states and municipalities are seeking to reverse what may—or may not—be a trend toward brick-and-mortar retailers not accepting cash. Refusing to accept cash has been illegal in Massachusetts, where I live, since 1978. More recent developments:
- Philadelphia will ban cashless stores beginning in July.
- In March, New Jersey outlawed cashless restaurants and stores.
- In May, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to require brick-and-mortar businesses to accept cash.
- Also in May, Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced the Cash Buyer Discrimination Act, which would require businesses all across the United States to accept cash.
These and other proposed laws are predicated on the idea that people without access to payment cards or digital payments are harmed when they cannot make purchases using their payment instrument of choice: cash. Oz's paper adds to the conversation by examining the choices consumers make at the point of sale, depending on their access to different ways to pay.
Using data from the 2017 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice, Oz found that consumers who own different mixes of payment instruments use cash with different intensity to make in-person purchases:
- Diary respondents who own neither a credit card nor a nonprepaid debit card made almost 9 in 10 of their in-person payments with cash, on average. The median share of cash purchases was 100 percent.
- Diary respondents who own at least one credit card and one nonprepaid debit card make about one-third of their in-person payments with cash, on average. The median share was 20 percent.
Oz goes on to calculate the cost to the cash payers who do not have credit or nonprepaid debit cards of switching from cash to a prepaid card. He finds that, all things being equal, for some consumers, using cash would have to cost twice as much as using a prepaid card for the cash users to be indifferent to switching. Oz's conclusion: "A complete transition to cashless stores imposes a measureable burden on consumers who do not have credit or [nonprepaid] debit cards." For perspective, 8.5 percent of respondents with household income below the U.S. median ($61,000) did not have a credit card or nonprepaid debit card in 2017, according to the diary.
As this research shows, cash is important to some consumers. The cashless society could be on a collision course with reality.