Millions do in Sweden – where even ‘Big Issue’ sellers are ditching coins and notes. So is this how Britain will look soon?
- In just five years Sweden has undergone a radical change in its spending habits
- 80% of payments in shops are by card and many businesses have banned cash
- Even market stalls, churches and homeless people accept card payments
- Could Britain be heading for a similar revolution in the way we use money?
As you enter the cheerful ABBA Museum building in Stockholm you are met by a 10ft-high pair of sparkly platform boots, the familiar sound of the band’s greatest hits — and a stern black and white sign.
‘Cashless Museum,’ it reads. ‘We only accept payment cards.’
The band which 40 years ago sang of their love of Money, Money, Money now seek only the plastic variety.
This cash-free crusade goes beyond the museum walls. ‘We have a vision of a cashless society,’ reads another sign hanging overhead. It turns out millions of other Swedes feel the same.
Plastic fantastic: The ABBA Museum building in Stockholm has like many Swedish businesses switched to only card payment
In just five years, Sweden has undergone a radical change in its spending habits. Today, 80 per cent of payments in shops are made by card.
And growing numbers of restaurants, hotels, bars and bakeries have — like the ABBA museum — banned cash all together. Cash is now so rare that even market stalls, churches and homeless people accept card payments.
Many bank branches have gone ‘cashless’, meaning customers cannot deposit notes and coins into their account, and others charge a fee to do so.
The result is that many Swedes have not carried cash for months, if not years.
Could Britain be heading for a similar revolution in the way we use money?
Figures suggest we are broadly comparable to Sweden in everything from employment rates and life expectancy to our internet use and online shopping habits.
Yet the idea of a cashless society is still a long way off in big cities, where some shops still ask for coins and notes; let alone in rural communities, where the internet connection is too poor to do online banking.
A study by bank ING found just one in five of us say we’d be happy to abandon cash compared to a European average of one in three.
But despite our doubts, experts say a cashless society is on its way — it’ll just arrive more slowly.
Debit cards will overtake cash as the most frequent payment method by the end of next year, according to Payments UK, a trade body.
And only yesterday, the Bank of England revealed it was looking into developing a digital currency in the event of the demise of cash, although chief cashier Victoria Cleland said she did not see this happening in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, last August, Waitrose opened its first cashless store inside Sky’s head office in Osterley, West London. Two cafes in London — Tossed and Browns of Brockley — have also gone cash-free this year.
James Frost, chief marketing officer of card payment firm Worldpay UK, says: ‘People aren’t going to stop carrying cash overnight. But at the rate people are falling out of love with cash, I wouldn’t be surprised if Prince George never gets to see his face on a British banknote.’
The campaign for Sweden to become the world’s first cashless society has been led, in part, by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus, now 72.
When he co-founded the ABBA Museum in 2013, it was decided the venue and its adjoining Pop House Hotel would be cashless. Since then, Bjorn has become Sweden’s unofficial spokesman for the abolition of notes and coins.
He enthusiastically describes going cashless as ‘the biggest crime-preventing scheme ever’, claiming it would make it harder for criminals to sell stolen goods on the black market or spend their drug money if there was always a digital record.
‘For the past year I’ve lived my life here totally without cash,’ he writes on the museum website. ‘The only inconvenience I found was that you need a coin to borrow a trolley at the supermarket.
‘I challenge anyone to come up with reasons to keep cash that outweigh the enormous benefits of getting rid of it.’
Johanna Mattsson, chief executive of the ABBA Museum on the leafy island of Djurgarden, says she never carries cash any more, and last used it in February — on a visit to the UK.
‘I don’t see the need for cash,’ she says, recounting her shock when a London taxi driver refused to accept card payment for a short ride from Covent Garden to Kings Cross.
All black cabs in London were forced to install card machines last October in response to the rise of taxi firm Uber, which takes payment via a mobile phone app.
But the card terminals sometimes malfunction and cabbies complain they lose some tips if you pay by card. So it’s hard to imagine businesses outside our capital ditching cash any time soon.
Johanna says one of the main reasons for abandoning cash at the ABBA Museum is the ‘security and safety’ of staff and visitors. If no cash is kept on the premises and no one carries money, attempts at robberies and muggings would be fruitless.
Cash is also more expensive to print, move, store and deposit. ‘We will be able to make huge savings by not keeping cash on the premises,’ Bjorn said when the museum opened four years ago.
A short boat ride from Djurgarden is Stockholm’s main business district, Norrmalm, where many hotels and bars have stickers in their windows which state it is a ‘cash-free zone’.
Within a five-minute walk, the Grand Central Hotel, the Scandic Continental and the Nordic Light Hotel have all gone cash-free. It is a reversal of the situation in many towns in Britain, where cafes and corner shops often refuse to accept cards, or insist on a minimum £5 spend if you do want to use one.
The Nordic Light went cashless last month. Manager Pernilla Isaksson says: ‘It’s said that Sweden will be cash-free in 15 years. We did not want to be the last place to do it.’
Quick and easy: With small businesses like market stalls invariably accepting card payments many Swedes have not carried cash for months, if not years
At a rooftop bar at the Scandic Continental a few doors down, many locals are unaware the venue has gone cash-free.
They haven’t noticed because most of them don’t carry cash anyway.
Lisa Ametrin, 43, an IT worker for clothing giant H&M, says she only handles coins when her children get a visit from the tooth-fairy.
Fabrique, a chain of Swedish bakeries with a store nearby, went cashless last year. Sales assistant Julia Holmgard Akerberg, 22, says: ‘Most people don’t mind, but sometimes tourists come with handfuls of money and are really disappointed they can’t use it.
‘Airports should tell people when they try to exchange money to krona that they won’t need it.’
Not everyone is convinced. Bjorn Eriksson, the former chief of Sweden’s national police force and the ex-president of Interpol, is one of the most vocal critics of a cashless society.
Now he’s the leader of a movement called Kontantupproret — or Cash Uprising — which fights for the right to pay with cash.
In Sweden 80 per cent of payments in shops are now made by card
Millions of pensioners, small businesses and rural dwellers feel ignored, vulnerable and uncomfortable by the speed of the card-only movement, he says.
It was exactly those sorts of concerns in Britain that a few years ago led the Government to ditch plans to scrap cheques by 2018.
Speaking from the Espresso House cafe — which accepts cash — Bjorn opens his wallet and reveals a row of American Express, Visa and Mastercard bank cards.
‘I love cards,’ he insists. ‘But why can we not have both?’
What does he say to figures from The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, stating that robberies fell by 70 per cent between 2004 and 2014?
He waves his hand dismissively. ‘It has reduced robberies for the banks, perhaps, but the criminals will just target the small shops and people in the street,’ he says. ‘And what about cyber-crime and card fraud? This is a growing concern.’
Last month, a Swedish man was a victim of a cashless mugging: three men surrounded the victim in Gothenburg and forced him to send them 2,000 Swedish krona (£178) via his mobile phone.
In Sweden, a mobile phone payments app, Swish, allows people to make instant payments. All you do is type the amount and the recipient’s unique ID number into your phone, and the money whizzes across.
It’s similar to our so-called Paym app in Britain. But while Paym is yet to take off, around half of Swedes use Swish.
‘Criminals will always find a way to get their money,’ Bjorn Eriksson, 71, says. ‘The big question is what will happen if hackers bring down Sweden’s payments system?
We are vulnerable if we have no cash at all.’ He is critical of the Swedish government for giving powers to the banks in 2005 to choose how, and if, they distribute cash.
‘Cash costs banks money to move around, whereas they can charge fees on cards; it is logical that banks have made it harder to use it,’ he says.
Divine: A woman using the cashless donation machine at the Stcokholm’s Fildelfia church
Åke Allard, 72, chairman of a Stockholm branch of PRO, the national pensioners’ organisation, says many older people don’t want to pay by card to buy a newspaper or pay bills.
‘Around three years ago, the local banks in Handen [a district in Stockholm] stopped people putting cash into their bank accounts,’ he says. ‘Now they have to travel 15 km [nine miles] with their money, which can be a difficult journey for them.
‘In the most rural areas, some travel 200 km [124 miles] to find a bank which will take cash.’
Local grocery stores can accept cash on behalf of banks, but they charge fees of up to 10 per cent.
While some are alarmed by the move towards a cashless society, for others it has opened up new opportunities.
Homeless people who sell the equivalent of the Big Issue magazine, Situation Sthlm, now accept card payments.
Situation Sthlm began issuing card readers to its vendors a couple of years ago after it learned growing numbers of passers-by were claiming to have no cash.
Customers can now also transfer the 50 krona (£4.40) for the magazine through the Swish app.
At the Hotorget outdoor market, in Stockholm, even the smallest fish or flower stalls accept debit and credit cards, with no minimum limit. It’s a far cry from our £1-a-bag fruit and veg markets in Britain, where you’ll struggle to find sellers who accept cards.
University graduates Malin Rosen, left, and Gabriella Gardefjord live cash free lives
Churches now also take card donations after worshippers increasingly found they had no cash for the collection tins.
In the reception of Filadelfiakyrkan Church, in a suburb of Stockholm, you are greeted by a card machine clad in wood and engraved with a cross. It looks like a mix between a pulpit and an ATM.
Worshippers can donate between 20 and 500 krona (approximately £2 to £45) and select the cause it goes to — from helping youths to missionary work.
This system, known as Kollektomat, is almost five years old and mostly used by elderly members of the congregation; the rest donate through the Swish app.
Last week, not a single worshipper handed over cash at the packed Sunday service, which attracts up to £4,000 in donations.
British charities are trying out contactless collection tins which accept instant card payments. Oxfam and the NSPCC are among those to have trialled the technology with Barclaycard in the UK to boost donations.
But even in Sweden, one group of people still clinging to their cash — the tourists.
Away from the offices and shopping district, hotels along the riverfront are quick to confirm they still accept cash. This includes the four-star Hotel Rival, owned by fellow ABBA member Benny Andersson, on the island of Sodermalm.
Meanwhile, staff at the exclusive £500-a-night Grand hotel, overlooking the Royal Palace, say ‘of course’ they still accept cash.
Sipping champagne in the hotel’s elegant bar are guests Malin Rosin, 25, and Gabriella Gardefjord, 23, here to celebrate graduating from Stockholm University in business administration.
Malin, carrying a black leather Prada handbag, says: ‘I can’t think of any situation where you would need to pay with cash. I haven’t used it in years.’
Sweden began rolling out new banknotes and coins in 2015, but the women are not even sure they have handled the new currency.
With a nonchalant shrug, Gabriella says: ‘I wouldn’t care if I never used cash again.’
In all likelihood, she never will.