In 1978, Massachusetts became the first and only state to ban cashless transactions in retail establishments. Then, 41 years later, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, followed its lead.
After that, the cashless bans multiplied. Including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Berkeley, and NYC (on Nov. 20), a growing list of U.S. cities are saying that plastic alone or just digitized payments are not okay. Cash has to be acceptable.
However, the pandemic is creating some questions.
The Cashless Debate
When the U.S. government got a delivery of Federal Reserve notes from Asia, it said circulation would be delayed for at least 7 to 10 days. They wanted to be sure no virus lurked on any surface. Similarly, referring to Covid-19, a Rhode Island college professor suggests that her state reverse its cashless ban. She cites the governor’s recommendation that all restaurants become cashless when they reopen. Perhaps knowing that a typical rectangle of “paper” money can be the home of 3,000 kinds of bacteria (though I’m not sure about the coronavirus), both believe no cash is a healthier alternative.
Also opposing the cashless bans, opponents say they stifle payment innovation. Others point out that cash adds to business minutiae. They have to count bills, deposit them, maintain safety precautions. Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium saved $350,000 after going cashless during March 2019. Meanwhile, Harvard economist Ken Rogoff adds that large bills contribute to global crime.
On the other side, the cashless bans diminish inequality. They support the fifth of all Americans who have no bank accounts. They help the people and small businesses with limited internet access. In addition, psychologists remind us that cash can be a restraint. When we are aware of the cash we remove from a wallet, we spend less.
Moving beyond the U.S., we can travel to Canada to see a more cashless country. Sweden also is high on the list. (Several years ago I told the wonderful story of an aspiring bank robber who was told he had selected a cash-free location. Sadly leaving with nothing, he asked a teller, “Where else can I go?”)
In the U.K. the share of cashless sellers jumped to almost 60 percent during the pandemic: