Cashless in the country

Cash is dead, long live cash!

First few days see me with more cash not less

We are living in tap-and-go times. Or at least we are if you are a trendy millennial or Gen X or Z in Shoreditch or Dalston. But how easy is it to get by without using cash when you live in the countryside, beyond the reach of Uber and Deliveroo? As a rural dweller, I decided to find out how close we country folk are to the much-trumpeted cashless economy.

I’ve been writing about what the financial sector calls the ‘emerging payments landscape’ for several years now. I explore some of the very latest developments in ‘fintech’ and the way people’s behaviours shape and are shaped by them. But I live in small, rather down at heel village in Somerset, far away from the glass towers and trading floors of my clients in London. Don’t get me wrong, I chose to move here and I love it. Fresh air, good schools, decent beer blah, blah, blah.

But when I’m discussing developments in payments with clients (and that does happen, honestly), I often find myself thinking, ‘That sounds brilliant, but how will it fly where I live?’ – where broadband speeds are, in the words of my teenage kids, ‘shit’; where 4G signals are patchy at best, and; where coffee bars are more likely to be packed with pensioners than bloggers and techies. How far do the products and services that I discuss in my day job reach into everyday life outside the UK’s big cities and towns? In particular, as banks and businesses increasingly refer to a cashless economy, how easy is it to get by without using cash in the countryside?

The experiment started well as I spent the entire first day working at home – I do this a lot as I’m self-employed – and I didn’t spend anything, except topping up the kids’ lunch money on ParentPay. I dialled in using my stored username and password and seconds later I’d put £25 on my credit card for bad pizzas at the local school. The ‘food’ is terrible, I’m reliably informed by my kids and all of their friends, but since I’m only a parent and school governor there I have little influence over the saturated fat and salt that is served up. For the kids it’s easy. The school went cashless a couple of years ago – no more bullies stealing kids’ lunch money (nostalgia) – and, so long as I remember to put money on their accounts, my teenage lovelies can buy what they want and verify their identify using their fingerprints. I can also check up on what they’ve been eating by logging on and reviewing their purchase history, which is how I know that pizzas, lattes and muffins are now school staples. Whatever happened to liver and bacon, and brick wall and custard?

But even without leaving the house, I still didn’t manage to go completely cashless. I sold an old rocking chair on Gumtree and my buyer turned up with cash (duh, what else?). It was a repro from John Lewis 20 years ago when my wife was first breastfeeding and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Like lots of first-time parents we imagined this would be soothing for mother and child and also a bit cool in a hokey, old-time kind of a way. It wasn’t. Two decades later and it’s been sat in about five times, each time resulting in the statement, ‘It doesn’t rock very well does it’. So, on to Gumtree it went and just a few days later it was collected by a soon-to-be-dad for his wife to sit in while she breastfed their imminent baby. It’s the circle of life you know. All very sweet but he paid in good old, reliable cash and didn’t have time to hear about the benefits of PayM.

What’s that I hear you ask? PayM? Well, PayM is a service that lets you use your mobile phone as a proxy for your bank account so that people, once registered, can make person-to-person (P2P) payments from their phones without ever having to remember or share bank details. You just bring up your mobile banking app, select their phone number or name – your address book will be linked to your banking app – and then send payment. And it all happens in real time – instantaneously – so you can see the money leave or arrive in your account. Of all the innovations I’ve learned about in payments in the last few years it’s probably my favourite. It works across banks and it’s free so what’s not to like? But, sadly no one seems to know about it. For some reason the banks have done little to promote PayM and it remains the payments sector’s best kept secret. But don’t take my word, try it – I guarantee you’ll love it.

The following day I sold a wardrobe on Gumtree and landed another small wad of cash, so two days into my experiment and not only have I not needed to spend any cash, but I’ve actually gained enough to see me through a regular week.

I have, however, encountered one of the challenges of living in the country: part-time services. With all of the banks in the surrounding villages now closed – although there are two cashpoints within a three-mile radius – accessing banking services is difficult. ‘The Post Office provides cheque paying-in services’ you cry. But, in my village the Post Office, which was located in a newly relaunched coffee shop and was only open two hours a week, has closed. Can’t think why. Fortunately, I have a car and am able to drive to the next village – but what if I had needed to get the bus? Where would my cashless life be then – and how many days would I have to wait for a bus to come?

Decluttering and free-cycling may be in vogue, especially at this time of year, but I bet the lifestyle gurus that recommend it all live within a WiFi’s reach of a Pret, or a hipster independent coffee bar.

The odyssey towards cashlessness continues…

 

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