© Getty, FT montage
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

“Ooh...” mumbled the man at the checkout when I produced a banknote from my pocket. “Miss, I can’t take that. It’s card only.”

I was stumped. Attempting to buy sushi for lunch at Itsu a week ago was the first time I’d been confronted with the problem of having cash rejected.

It is the epitome of first world problems — made worse by the fact that I had to walk out hungry, with my head hung in shame, after putting what I had selected back on the shelf.

This central London branch of the Japanese fast-food chain has been a cashless business for some time, but the impact of the coronavirus has rapidly caused retail businesses to refuse to accept cash, fearing the increased contamination risk of handling notes and coins. 

You may well have noticed “no cash” signs appearing on the tills of local businesses on your high street this week. 

My experience in the sushi bar last week happened because I had lost my purse on the train as I was coming into work. 

It contained my Oyster card, driving licence and debit card. I’d managed to quickly cancel the debit card and order a new one (which I was assured would arrive “within the next five days”) but for the time being, after taking a loan from a friend, I had to go cash only.

In London, that is a problem.

It wasn’t just a pain to get a bit of lunch. Buying dinner from Sainsbury’s on the way home, I found (after I scanned my own shopping on the self-service checkout) that I couldn’t pay in cash. 

I had to hit the button and summon a human being to help me, as other shoppers stared at the cash-carrying weirdo. 

The next day I’d planned to get on a bus, which conveniently stops at the end of my boyfriend’s road. But as I set foot outside the flat, I realised it wasn’t going to be that easy. I’d have to walk to the station first to buy a day travelcard, since TFL buses don’t take cash any more.

Even buying a travelcard at a station is a risk when several machines are card only, or (temporarily) cannot take notes and coins. One of them worked and I bought a ticket — but by that point it was easier to get on a train instead, meaning I was rather late for work.

Upon arriving in the City, I opted for my usual morning coffee at somewhere I knew took cash. I handed over £2.50 in coins for my Americano — after the barista had automatically activated the card machine. I stared at the ground, desperate not to catch her eye, after as she physically and painfully counted out the change. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, “I don’t have a choice.”

Later on I overheard a man asking a woman for some spare change, “I’m sorry love, I don’t have any,” she said. “Everyone is just using their cards now because of that coronavirus.”

I finally thought I’d cracked it, using travelcards to get on public transport and noting down shops that take cash. I still needed to replace my driving licence, which is easy enough to do online.

And that is when the next hurdle hit me: I couldn’t pay for anything online until I’d got my new card. I timidly called my dad who graciously paid for it for me.

Being without a bankcard was an inconvenience for me for a few days — but for more than a million other people in the UK, a cash-only existence is a fact of life. As the coronavirus crisis deepens, this is becoming even more of a social problem. 

The Financial Conduct Authority estimates that there are 1.3m people without a bank account in the UK, and those numbers are concentrated in big cities. Yet those big cities are precisely the places that are quickly phasing out cash. While I was only temporarily restricted to what I could buy, there are some shops the unbanked simply cannot use at all. Online shopping — a lifeline for those who are self-isolating — is also off the agenda. 

As well as those on low incomes, older people are also more likely to be bigger users of cash. Since the onset of the crisis, plenty of older people who have never shopped online — or indeed banked online — are relying on younger family members to help them. 

For cash users, these repeated small disruptions to everyday life build up to a much bigger inconvenience, another source of stress at a time when millions are worrying about their financial future. The chancellor’s promises at the Budget to protect the future cash and the vulnerable groups and communities who rely on using it have been left in the dust. 

Only a few years ago, cash was normal. Now it almost makes you an outcast, especially in a big city.

Yesterday I got home to find my new debit card had arrived. At last I had some financial freedom back. Except the card I had been sent was not contactless. Aargh! 

Alice Hearing is a social media journalist at the Financial Times; email alice.hearing@ft.com, Twitter: @Alicetotheskies

Get alerts on Personal Finance Advice & Comment when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article