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Portals and Rails, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Portals and Rails and look forward to collaborating with you.

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June 09, 2014


Magic 8 Ball, Will We Ever Be Cashless?

Predictions of a cashless society have been broadcast sporadically throughout the decades. It became a popular concept in the United States in 1965 when Thomas J. Watson Jr., CEO of IBM, said, "In our lifetime, we may see electronic transactions virtually eliminate the need for cash." Watson believed, or hoped, that the newly released IBM mainframe computers would revolutionize financial transaction processing and make carrying cash unnecessary. Later that decade, the concept was expanded to a checkless/cashless society, with some predicting that both payment forms would be extinct by the 1980s.

Despite consumers' growing use of cards and the emergence of the ACH system, the cashless society concept took a bit of a detour during the 1980s and 1990s—ATMs and shared EFT networks proliferated, both offering tremendous convenience and making it very easy to distribute currency. When card-based point-of-sale (POS) programs also emerged, they offered an alternative to currency and checks, while also increasing the convenience of currency by allowing cash-back transactions. This expansion of currency convenience took place even as consumers were being warned of the dangers of coin and currency—the germs, the cocaine residue, the increased chance of robbery, and so on. Certainly this was a more intense negative campaign than the spontaneous combustion danger my mother warned me about when I was young. I'd received some birthday money that I was anxious to spend, and she declared that the money was "burning a hole in your pocket."

While the central banking authorities of some countries such as Sweden and Nigeria have announced a goal of moving to a less-cash society, consumers in the United States are seemingly moving in the opposite direction, as evidenced by some recent San Francisco Fed research. Researchers examined the data from the 2012 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice (DCPC) study by the Boston, Richmond, and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks. The San Francisco Fed research included these key findings

  • Cash remains the most-used form of payment, accounting for 40 percent of payment transactions.
  • Cash is generally used for lower-value transactions. The average value of a cash transaction was only $21, compared with $168 for checks and $44 for debit cards.
  • Cash is used most often in gift and P2P (or "person-to-person") transfers, with food and personal care supply purchases second (see the chart).
    Figure 4: Payment Instrument Shares, by Spending Category
  • Contrary to the conventional wisdom of millennials' love for all things electronic, 40 percent of 18–24 year olds prefer cash over all other payment methods—the highest percentage of any age group.

Yes, card, ACH, and other electronic transactions are continuing to increase and gain larger shares of the overall consumer transaction mix while check usage remains in a steady decline. Despite the dire outlook for checks, my colleague Doug King pointed out in a recent post that check usage among P2P users actually increased, according to the latest Fed payments study. My Magic 8 ball is predicting that coin and currency are going to be around for quite some time. What does yours say?

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

June 9, 2014 in cards, checks, currency | Permalink

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