This week, I was driving in my neighborhood when I spotted that most American of sights — a bunch of kids running a lemonade stand, waving signs and trying to flag down passing cars. In some ways, it seemed like a great business opportunity — the temperatures where I live have rarely dipped below the high 90s lately. And yet I didn’t stop — not because I don’t like lemonade (or kids), but because I simply don’t carry cash anymore, and I’m fairly sure the neighbor children weren’t taking credit cards.
This got me thinking about all the people and sectors of our economy that are still dependent on cash, and how they might be affected by our increasingly cashless society.
Cash is in decline
Whether anecdotally or based on solid data, I think most of us have a sense that cash is in decline. One study from last year suggests that cash is the preferred payment method of just 11 percent of U.S. consumers, with 75 percent preferring cards. In other markets such as China, cash is dying out even more quickly, with mobile payments increasingly eating into both its share and that of cards. Though my local dry cleaner in New Jersey was a rare (and suspicious) exception, I very rarely come across businesses that don’t take cards, to the extent that it now really takes me aback when it happens. For many of us these days, credit and debit cards — and to a lesser extent, mobile payments — are making cash largely irrelevant. I still have a huge jar of loose change I accumulated over many years, and which now mostly gets used for the occasional school lunch or visits from the tooth fairy, but not much else.
But not for everyone
However, assuming that this pattern holds for everyone would be a mistake. There are still big sectors of the economy and large groups of people that remain heavy users of cash and are heavily dependent on it, and as others move away from it, that’s increasingly going to cause them problems. Sadly, this likely applies most to some of the more vulnerable and marginalized parts of our society, who will be least in a position to make the changes necessary to keep up as the rest of society moves on.