Will paper money become obsolete?

Executive Summary

With the rise of digital payment systems and a search for greater convenience in the retail sphere, many economists, business experts and consumers believe the United States is on its way to becoming a cashless society. Cashless businesses – those that only accept payments made by credit or debit cards or other forms of electronic transfer – have been normalized by new-economy enterprises such as Uber and Amazon that use online platforms for payment. Now, as more brick-and-mortar businesses become cashless, some politicians and advocates for the poor are raising questions about fairness. They say going cashless can discriminate against low-income individuals, the elderly and others. But some restaurants and other businesses say eliminating cash reduces the risk of robbery and provides a service many consumers want. Advocates also say going cashless would assist authorities in controlling money laundering.

Some key takeaways:

  • In 2017, debit cards were the most popular payment instrument used by adults in the United States, followed by cash and credit cards.

  • Younger Americans are more comfortable not carrying cash than older ones, while 6 in 10 overall expect the United States to become a cashless society within their lifetime.

  • Sweden may become the world’s first cashless country; in 2015, only 2 percent of the value of all payments there were made in cash.

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Resources for Further Study



Bandelj, Nina, Frederick Wherry and Viviana Zelizer, “Money Talks: Explaining How Money Really Works,” Princeton University Press, 2017. Three economic sociologists edit a compilation of essays that explores how social relations, emotions, moral values and institutions shape an individual’s relationship with money.

Baradaran, Mehrsa, “How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy,” Harvard University Press, 2018. An associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law examines unequal access to banks among low-income and minority communities.

Birch, David, “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin: From Money that We Understand to Money that Understands Us,” London Publishing Partnership, 2017. An international expert in digital identity and digital money explores how technology will influence the future of money.


Roberts, Jeff John, “Why a Popular Salad Chain Stopped Using Cash,” Fortune, Sept. 14, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yco9le65. Stressing convenience, hygiene and safety, the salad chain Sweetgreen goes cashless.

Schweitzer, Ally, “How A ‘Cashless’ Future Could Leave D.C. Residents Shortchanged,” WAMU Radio, Aug. 29, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ydagrfll. Critics complain cashless restaurants are a form of economic discrimination.

Reports and Studies

“Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017 – May 2018,” Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System, June 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8kmdsp7. Access to bank accounts increased to almost 95 percent in the United States in 2017, and the number of “unbanked” people continued to edge down, the Federal Reserve reported.

“UFA2020 Overview: Universal Financial Access by 2020,” World Bank, April 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycqer9x3. The World Bank, an international financial institution, sets a goal of 1 billion people gaining access to an account at a bank or other financial institution in which they can electronically store, withdraw and transfer payments.

Greene, Claire, and Joanna Stavins, “The 2016 and 2017 Surveys of Consumer Payment Choice: Summary Results,” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, May 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8y8r9dp. A survey by two Federal Reserve banks finds stable consumer payment behavior over the past decade.

Swift, Art, and Steve Ander, “Most Americans Foresee Death of Cash in Their Lifetime,” Gallup, July 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ybgku85y. A majority of Americans expect the United States to become a cashless society within their lifetimes, according to a Gallup Poll.

The Next Step


Albrecht, Chris, “Report: Being Cashless Backfires When Payment System Crashes,” The Spoon, Oct. 19, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9j6anox. Sweetgreen, the cashless quick-dining salad chain, suffered a recent system crash at one of its locations in Los Angeles, forcing employees to give out free meals to waiting customers.

Kauffman, Jonathan, “Bay Area restaurants go cashless, but what about the consequences?” San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y98o8uue. The increasing number of independent restaurants and businesses forgoing cash in the Bay Area is a sign of the growing economic divide in the region, says a food writer.

Nirappil, Fenit, “As restaurants go cashless, a backlash is building. Will D.C. intervene?” The Washington Post, July 9, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y888jf2v. Some restaurants in the District of Columbia say they are going cashless to improve efficiency and safety, but lawmakers and other restaurateurs say the practice discriminates against immigrants and other groups.


“Sweden leads the world in cashless payments,” The Local Sweden, Oct. 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8tu7q2l. Sweden is now the world’s most cashless society and is expected to maintain that status, according to a recent study.

Meyer, David, “Sweden Is Going Cashless So Quickly That Its Central Bank Is Speeding Up Plans for a National Digital Currency,” Fortune, Oct. 26, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaodrmbg. Sweden’s central bank has been pressing ahead with plans for an e-currency despite critics’ warnings that a cashless society can discriminate against the elderly, disabled and others.

Savage, Maddy, “The Swedes rebelling against a cashless society,” BBC, April 6, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybtjj7mw. Sweden’s elderly population is the most vulnerable as the country moves to end cash transactions, advocates for seniors say.


Council Member David Grosso
1350 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Suite 402, Washington, DC 20004
At-large District of Columbia council member who introduced the Cashless Retailers Prohibition Act of 2018 to require food establishments in D.C. to accept cash.

Federal Reserve
20th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20551
Central bank of the United States, created by Congress in 1913 to provide the nation with a stable monetary and financial system.

Identity Theft Resource Center
3625 Ruffin Road, #204, San Diego, CA 92123
Nonprofit created in 1999 to support victims of identity theft and to provide educational resources in cybersecurity, fraud and scams.

National Community Reinvestment Coalition
740 15th St., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005
Membership organization that promotes community reinvestment in traditionally underserved communities.

Square Inc.
1455 Market St., Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103
Mobile-payment company that allows individuals and merchants to accept card payments via a smartphone or tablet.

Strategy and International Business Group
2.228, Scarman Road Building Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL United Kingdom
+44 (0)24–7652–3038
Business school group that conducts research in strategy and international business.

8840 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232
Fast casual restaurant chain serving salad that became a cashless business at nearly all of its branches in 2017.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680434.n1