After eight years living in Sweden, coins and notes barely feel like money any more. Last month, my daughter lost a front tooth. She was thrilled to find that the tooth fairy came – but showed no interest whatsoever in the 10 kronor (80p) that was left behind.
This is not surprising, as she has rarely, if ever, seen my Swedish wife or I use a coin to buy anything. We’re not alone. Last year, only about one in eight Swedes said they had used cash for a recent purchase.
More and more cafes, restaurants and shops in my home city of Malmö are going cash free, and big retailers such as Ikea and Ahlens, Sweden’s equivalent of John Lewis, are starting to join them.
Increasingly they also take Swish, a payment system that allows you to instantly transfer cash to others using only their phone number. Swish, which started as a way to send small amounts of cash to friends, can now be used for almost anything.
It can be very convenient. When I managed to leave my wallet at home on Monday, my wife “Swished” the payment for my coffee and croissant from her desk at Lund University.
During collection at Swedish churches, people are nowadays much more likely to reach for their phones than their wallets.
This is not to say there is no resistance. A group called Kontantupproret, or Cash Rebellion, has spent the past six years campaigning against what it claims is a conspiracy of Sweden’s banks to abolish cash.
The group is led by Björn Eriksson, a former national police chief and a colourful character who presents the disappearance of cash as a grave threat to democracy, privacy and individual freedom.
He is, or at least was, also chair of the Association of Swedish Private Security Companies, whose members risk losing a key part of their business if cash vanishes, so perhaps he has ulterior motives.
But others have also raised the alarm. Pensioners’ groups and disability advocates have warned that some old and mentally disabled people struggle with digital transactions. But my 72-year-old mother-in-law can’t think of anyone in her generation who has troubles.
The Civil Contingencies Agency, which prepares Sweden for crisis, meanwhile advises everyone to keep cash at home in small denominations in case the payment system crashes.
For me though, the hassle of hanging on to actual physical money is starting to outweigh the value of anything I might buy with it. There are only three places where I still use cash: my local hairdresser, the bicycle repair man, and the nearby open-air grocery market.
These are all run by people with migrant backgrounds, who perhaps due to a distrust of authority brought from their homelands, or perhaps to a wish to avoid the taxman, seem most keen on cash.
On the rare occasions, perhaps once or twice a month, when I want 200 kronor, it can be hard to get hold of.
The ATM nearest my house recently shut down: Bankomat, the cash machine company co-owned by the banks, has reduced the number of outlets by a fifth in four years. And as far as I know only one branch of Swedbank, my bank, in Malmö still handles cash.
This is a growing problem even for the migrant resistance. Babak, my nearest bicycle repairman, recently started taking Swish after tiring of having to find creative ways get around the 10,000 kronor weekly limit on depositing cash into machines.
When I asked the local barber about it, he shrugged, and said he knew he would soon be forced to follow suit.
I’ve long since swapped my bulky leather wallet for a thin card holder, and what change I get ends up floating around at the bottom of my bag or pockets, stuck behind the sofa, or in jars alongside my children’s marbles.
So maybe it’s not that surprising that my daughter doesn’t think coins are worth much.
Will the UK cash out too?
The UK could find itself “sleepwalking” into a cashless society like Sweden, according to the authors of a report this week that claimed that 8 million adults would struggle to cope if notes and coins disappeared.
The Access to Cash report, funded by the Link cash machine network, said: “We found that the real death knell for cash in Sweden was likely to be retailers and service providers refusing cash – not the loss of ATMs and bank branches.”
Some Ikea stores have trialled banning cash, after finding that just 1% of customers paid that way. But when hospitals in Sweden announced they were no longer taking cash it prompted an outcry.
“In Sweden, we were repeatedly advised by central bankers, consumer groups and the cross-party commission exploring cash to plan now – because once their infrastructure had gone, putting it back was close to impossible. The Swedish government has recently agreed to ‘put the brakes on’ their shift to cashlessness because they are leaving people behind and need time to plan how to include everyone,” the report said.
However, the researchers also noted that Sweden has found innovative ways to deal with the end of cash.
SituationSthlm is a Swedish magazine similar to the UK’s Big Issue, sold by homeless people in Stockholm. But the sellers couldn’t sell magazines to people who didn’t carry cash. The solution? A badge for sellers with a QR payment code. Buyers scan it with their phone, make a digital payment using the mobile payment system Swish, and then the seller collects their cash from the SituationStklm offices soon after.
“This solution originated to help sell magazines, but soon showed other benefits. It helped homeless people carry less cash – which reduced their vulnerability to theft, and also gave them a way to budget by leaving their money at the office until they needed it,” said the report.
The researchers also found that Sweden had benefited from lower crime and higher tax revenues as cash usage had fallen, but it added: “We must not demonise those who operate in cash, when many have no choice.”