5 reforms necessary to create a truly cashless society

The coronavirus pandemic challenged the status quo and completely changed normal life as we knew it. However, with these challenges have come new opportunities to adapt and participate differently in the world. One of the first trends was that cash is no longer accepted.

The transition to cashless transactions, which at first seemed minor, made my customer experience seamless. Going wallet-free made me wonder why I ever carried cash at all!

Cashless life has been widely adopted in Asian countries for quite some time, but it wasn’t universally adopted across the United States until the coronavirus pandemic. The convenience of cashless transactions just makes sense, but my hope is that this convenience doesn’t come at the cost of other aspects of commerce.

The transition to cashless transactions made my customer experience seamless.

Inaccessibility, fees and thoughtless spending are some of the potential problems that come to mind with cashless spending. For a truly cashless society, here are five key points for consideration:

1. Payment processors currently have the upper hand, forcing fees onto customers

For the sake of a cashless transaction, we have given up our last direct authentic connection with our favorite baristas, small businesses and independent brands. When I take out my credit card or phone to pay, I am not thinking about the fees that both myself and the merchant are paying to facilitate what was once a fee-less transaction. Losing this direct connection with my merchant has given payment processors the upper hand, allowing them to demand an unjustifiable fee of up to 3%.

With virtual payments, my cash is essentially in my phone and the barista is directly in front of me, but the transaction does not work like cash. The merchant will need to pay the fee on my transaction. If the cash revenue for that coffee shop used to be 20% of their revenue pre-COVID, they will now need to pay the fees on 20% of their revenue. Sadly, the merchant response over time is to raise prices. Historically, the adoption of a cashless exchange results in fees being passed through to the customer.

Through price increases across the board, the customer is always bailing the merchant out for the cost of the electronic, seamless, safer-than-ever money exchange. Furthermore, the customers are even “forced” to tip digitally from predefined settings, removing all meaning of tips as an emotional social contract. This new normal means that customers will end up paying $4 in a digital transaction for a coffee that used to cost $3 in cash.

2. Platforms must adapt new models to forgo transaction fees

Given that software and intelligent platforms have always lowered the cost of services when they are used at scale, why has this reduction of cost not yet applied to digital financial transactions? Customers need to demand that cashless transactions operate in the same way as cash transactions.

Even if we continue with a fee model, why would regular, loyal and verified customers always pay (directly or indirectly) the hefty cost of the exchange on top of the cost of credit? There should be a differentiation between these different types of transactions, regular or new, and appropriate fees that make sense.

3. Product experiences must promote conscious spending

Paying with digital or credit cards almost feels like paying with someone else’s money, which can be a dangerous feeling when considering that the user does not see this money spent instantly. Say your regular coffee costs $3. Paying for that coffee with cash is a very different experience than paying with a card or a digital wallet.

When you have a finite amount of cash in your pocket, the physical act (and sometimes mental pain) of spending makes the money feel different and more valuable than the invisible money that you spend via your credit or debit card. In many ways, the silent pain we endure while paying in cash has been subconsciously raising our awareness about our spending.

4. Accessibility and use must extend to all

The idea of a cashless society has thus far not been very inclusive to the unbanked and underbanked population. To support a new model, this underserviced sector needs to be able to utilize this software. A user needs to be able to walk into a grocery store and give the cashier $100 for them to upload the money to their virtual wallet.

Alternatively, a friend needs to be able to send $100 to their virtual wallet. For a cashless society to work, virtual payments need to work with ease and certainty that they will be accepted at any and all locations, just like cash.

5. The path to an open wallet

Have you ever ordered a $15 meal on a food delivery app, only for the total to end up over $25? Beyond the delivery fee, tips and taxes, delivery apps are pricing in extra fees to offset the fees charged by credit card and payment companies. In an effort to avoid these extra fees, apps like Lyft and Uber have begun deploying their own digital wallets supported by ACH transfers.

Sadly, consumers are unlikely to see the benefit until these wallets reach wide adoption, which is clearly not happening because no one wants yet another app-specific wallet.

The way forward

To truly empower the consumer, both Google and Apple should keep developing their digital wallets with an open API payment system to allow all apps to securely interact with it for free. This will transform the Google and Apple wallet and will better service the unbanked and underbanked populations instead of just being a gateway for credit cards.

This would further support the unbanked or underbanked population as they too would be able to utilize an open wallet that can be refilled with cash in person. I should be able to use the cash I have in my virtual wallet with any app, website or physical merchant without paying a fee. I should also be able refill the wallet from my bank account or directly deposit some of my paycheck into my phone wallet. Merchants would also benefit from wallet-to-pay by paying no fees to Google and Apple.

Instead, the mobile wallet creator could introduce a new business model focused on discovery and connecting users and merchants, charging merchants for the connections that they facilitate.

In a not-so-distant future, when I get my new Apple or Google phone, it will have a wallet that can be used without fees for payment across all apps, in physical retail locations, and for peer-to-peer money transfers. The credit cards, or rather lines of credit, on my digital wallet will use an Affirm-like loan service that allows me to buy anything from a pack of gum to a luxury watch or even a car, just using my phone’s wallet.

Goldman Sachs and Mastercard should not be the only players in the credit space. Innovation is necessary in the digital wallet space to pioneer the movement to change the outdated fee models for the simple act of money exchange.