Finance expert Sarah Wells issues urgent warning after  Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, NAB and ANZ embrace change

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  • Predictions cash could disappear by 2026
  • Expert says many to people suffer if cash goes



A finance expert has warned Australia could become a cashless society in as little as three years with thousands of people to be left worse off because of it. 

Among those who could suffer in a cashless society are people in regional areas, those caught in emergencies, indigenous Australians, new immigrants, sex workers, the elderly and even children.

Young people will suffer, according to finance commentator Sarah Wells, because they won’t learn the true value of money and lose valuable social interactions when all transactions are digital.

‘I believe it is better for children to use cash,’ Ms Wells told Daily Mail Australia. 

‘Giving a child $20 and taking them to a shopping centre, or the movies helps them to learn to budget and helps them to make decisions by thinking more carefully.

Finance commentator Sarah Wells (pictured) says we need to look past hype about convenience in our rush to abandon cash
Young people will suffer, according to Ms Wells because they won’t learn the true value of money and lose valuable social interactions when all transactions are digital

‘There’s a responsibility in handing over money and such valuable social interaction, they learn to say “please” and “thank you” and look people in the eye.’

Use of banknotes and coins sharply declined during the pandemic, partly due to fears the virus could survive on real currency and spread to humans.

Recent data shows Australians have never used less cash with more and more opting for digital payments.

‘The share of in-person transactions made with cash halved, from 32 per cent to 16 per cent, over the three years to 2022,’ the Reserve Bank of Australia said in its recent Cash Use and Attitudes bulletin.

Banks have increasingly placed more emphasis on digital transactions with Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, NAB and ANZ opening cashless branches. 

In Australia, more than 1,600 bank branches permanently shut their doors between June 2017 and July 2022, with a ‘disproportionate number’ in regional communities that are more significantly affected, according to the Financial Services Union. 

Westpac has embarked on a ‘co-locating’ strategy in which it is closing some separate locations of brands it owns like St George and moving them inside a Westpac branch.

While the remaining big four banks – Commonwealth, ANZ and NAB – have all opened cashless branches where customers are directed to ATMs for ‘everyday banking’.

Ms Wells predicted Australia is on track to stop using physical money within three to five years.

She says we can slow the disappearance of cash from society by using it when it still makes sense to do so. 

An increasingly rare right in 2023: cash being used to pay for something. It could disappear altogether within five years one expert warns
Another less acknowledged reason for the reduction in cash transactions is that a hugely profitable industry has emerged from the increase in online payments

The arguments for more and more transactions happening online are typically convenience and safety.

But cyber attacks, scams and fraud are frequently undermining the safety argument, not to mention the gradual whittling away of people’s money through small fees for things that quickly add up, such as subscriptions.

‘Privacy and security concerns with electronic payment methods continued to be the main reason for needing cash,’ the RBA noted. 

Another less acknowledged reason for the reduction in cash transactions is that a hugely profitable industry has emerged from the increase in online payments which is seen as too big to fail.

Where nobody could charge additional fees from cash transactions, intermediaries called payment service providers, who sit between consumers and merchants, make money by charging small fees.

The global payment services market was valued at $21.66billion in 2022 and is predicted to grow more than 15 per cent a year until 2030.

While Ms Wells believes the change to a cashless society is inevitable, she said she is not in favour of such a big change happening so quickly.

Adding together several very different social and demographic groups, hundreds of thousands of Australians could be negatively affected.

‘I think we need to stop thinking about ourselves so much and our own convenience and start thinking a bit more about others,’ she said. 

While children could be impacted, their grandparents will be too.

While people aged over 65 are also using less cash, they remain the biggest users of cash. Almost one in five is classified as a ‘high cash user’.

New immigrants and undocumented workers often rely on cash, Ms Wells says
One industry that has traditionally relied heavily on cash is the private sex work industry, often because clients don’t want their transactions tracked

People on lower incomes use more cash than those on high incomes, RBA figures show.

‘By income, lower household income continued to be associated with more intensive cash usage – for example, 17 per cent of people in the first household income quartile were high cash users.’ 

Who could be hurt by the end of hard cash?

  • Aussie kids
  • Women affected by domestic violence 
  • Elderly Australians
  • People in areas with unreliable internet (i.e. the bush)
  • Indigenous Australians 
  • People affected by emergencies 
  • Sex workers
  • New immigrants
  • Undocumented workers 

 

Ms Wells said regional Australians – including business owners – could be hit by the disappearance of cash in several ways.

‘Removing cash and its availability will make life difficult when you have mobile phone issues, and when there’s problems with eftpos, she said.

A report by RMIT University last December found mobile data speeds in rural towns  were 90 per cent slower on average than those in urban areas.

People in rural areas are more susceptible to natural disasters too, which can damage communications and online infrastructure.

In 2022 when the town of Lismore flooded electronic payment systems crashed, leaving people from 56,000 homes and businesses unable to buy food, fuel and water.

Five credit unions banded together in May 2022 to fly a helicopter load of cash in so locals to buy what they needed. 

Indigenous Australians, would be disproportionately affected for similar  reasons. 

While the percentage of all indigenous people living in rural and remote areas is declining, almost half still live in regional or remote areas.

Overall Ms Wells believes losing cash from circulation will make Australia a less kind society.

People who rely on cash, including new immigrants, sex workers and people without the identification needed to open bank accounts will suffer.

‘This is an issue for vulnerable people, those who don’t fit within what we might think of “normal” society. Sure there are some ethical issues involved, but [people without bank accounts) are still human beings.’

 Some people either choose or believe they need to conduct transactions privately, including people impacted by domestic violence, she said.

‘Every human being has a right to dignity and privacy whether they are a mum struggling to make ends meet so they do cleaning jobs or babysitting for cash or whether they are a sex workers. 

‘We are not talking about massive tax avoiders here, these are ordinary people.’

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