Has the pandemic changed our relationship with cash forever?

Half of Britons are using less physical cash now than pre-pandemic, suggesting the last last two years may have permanently changed attitudes towards coins and notes.

Only a quarter claim they are using the same amount of cash as before with four per cent claiming to use more today than they did prior to the pandemic.

The research was carried out over two years by Link, the UK’s main ATM cash machine network.

It found the number of transactions carried out at cash machines has been significantly changes thanks to Covid.

The 'new normal': Half of people say they are using less cash than they were pre-Covid

The ‘new normal’: Half of people say they are using less cash than they were pre-Covid

In the year before the pandemic struck it recorded a total of 2.61billion ATM transactions.

However in 2020 the total number of transactions fell to 1.64billion and fell even further in 2021 to 1.52billion transactions. 

This year, there are signs that this might recover somewhat. So far in 2022, there has been 235million cash machine transactions in total recorded by Link., compared to fewer than 200million in January and February 2021 – but this is still way down on the first two months of 2020.

Graham Mott, director of strategy at Link said: ‘We monitor ATM use across the UK on a daily basis, but the research adds another layer to understand how people are using cash and why.

‘Link’s view is that ATM use will never return to pre-pandemic levels and that people who perhaps were using less cash generally are now entirely comfortable using their phones or contactless.

‘That being said, we’re still seeing £1.5billion withdrawn from ATMs every week. That’s still a lot of money and there are a lot of people who rely entirely on cash.’

What did Link’s research uncover? 

Link’s first survey took place during the first week of March 2020, prior to the first national lockdown, when 118 cases had been identified in Britain. 

It found that fewer than a quarter of Britons believed coronavirus was going to change their use of cash over the next six months.

Link continued to do research through the pandemic and found Britons’ use of cash very quickly settled into a new pattern.

At the height of the national lockdown in March and April 2020, ATM transactions fell significantly with the average volumes falling by as much as 65 per cent.

By mid-summer 2020 – when restrictions were lifted for the first time – more than three quarters of Britons were saying they were using less cash since the start of the pandemic and four in five people said they would reduce their cash use in future.

However, while cash use had fallen, it had not disappeared and 53 per cent of people still said they had used cash in the past two weeks with 22 per cent using it in a convenience store, 17 per cent in a supermarket and 12 per cent paying friends and family.

By August 2020, more than seven in ten Britons claimed they were using less cash overall than they were before Covid.

Link also found that a quarter of Britons who had wanted to use cash had not been able to do so at certain shops. Some even admitted they had to walk away as a result.

Even as the final restrictions came to an end in England at the beginning of this year, Link found that although ATM usage remained significantly down on pre-Covid levels, more than seven in ten Britons still claimed to have used cash within two weeks of being surveyed.

Link’s research also showed a change in where people are using cash now that restrictions have been eased. 

Supermarkets, hairdressers and in particular, pubs, saw surges in cash usage, thought to be a result of those locations starting to accept cash once again, or at least not actively discouraging it.

In terms of current cash acceptance more than one in five Britons claim to have faced a situation where they wanted to use cash but couldn’t.

Natalie Ceeney, chair of the Access to Cash Review and Cash Action Group said: ‘Three years ago, cash acceptance wasn’t an issue, with the UK’s first pub to go cashless a frontpage headline in a national newspaper.

‘Three years on and we’re in a different place. The pandemic turbocharged the shift towards digital – many shops encouraged or stopped accepting cash and many people moved away from cash entirely.

Ceeney says that LINK’s research sheds light on what this shift has meant for people. For many their lives have likely been made harder.

‘For many people, particularly those who are older, disabled or poorer, there is no alternative to cash,’ says Ceeney.

‘I’ve spoken to people who had to travel miles, at significant personal cost and time, because their local bank branch or ATM closed.

‘Digital services might be easier and more convenient for many, but they don’t yet work for everyone.’

Lord Chris Holmes of Richmond, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on banking and fintech echoed Ceeney’s concerns on the matter.

‘I think we would largely agree that a digital future is a good thing, but we need to make sure that we bring everyone with us and look at all the policy challenges as part of this opportunity.

‘The reality is that if you don’t have access to a smartphone, broadband or the necessary skills or confidence, then you are effectively cut out.

‘This is hugely problematic and only exacerbates inequalities in society. 

‘Not everyone can bank online or rely on direct debits every month. Cash is another example of this.’

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