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Dirty Money: The Effect of COVID-19 on Cash Usage

During the COVID-19 outbreak, before most of the social distancing and social isolation measures were put in place, there were several governments and institutes that started to discourage the use of cash. Restaurants that continued to provide take-away services made clear that they would not accept cash. If a food (take-away) order was placed, via phone or online, the payment had to be made through iDeal, which is a Dutch payment platform. This wasn't just a trend associated with ready-to-eat food delivery. Even in supermarkets, where reducing physical contact is more difficult, customers were heavily discouraged from using cash. Given that cash remains (and ought to remain) legal tender, most grocery stores couldn't actually refuse people paying with cash, which increased physical contact and as such increased the risk of contamination. Grocery stores as a result urged the Dutch government to temporarily withdraw the legality of cash usage. They wanted cash to stop being a legal tender.

Now people might have expected a lot of fall-out around COVID-19. But this? What is going on here?


Several reports of which a lot of language, if not their entire validity, can be doubted were released indicating that the COVID-19 virus can survive quite a long time (remain contagious) on hard surfaces. Meaning that if one person touches the surface with a contaminated bodypart or item the next person that touches the surface might then pick up the virus. It is really unsurprising that these types of reports led to a lot of panic. But more surprising is how this information got handled, and the measures that were taken as a result. To reduce the option of getting contaminated a lot of people started to frantically wash and disinfect their hands and the surfaces in their immediate areas (good thinking!). Issue is they then kept getting in close proximity of others (different issue but hey), so we should really doubt the effectiveness of it all... To get back on track: people started to panic about touching things that other people had also touched. And almost nothing gets round as much as cash. There's hardly any way of figuring out where it's been (for the consumer), nor do you know where it's really going. The uncertainty of "not knowing where it's been" send a lot of people to start using mobile payments or to more heavily rely on their cards. This trend was then of course also supported by take-aways and grocery stores.

Cash was too physical. It could easily carry the virus and promote contamination. Cash was dirty.


Now the idea that cash isn't exactly clean has been arround a long time. In America the joke exists that at least half the 1 dollar bills in circulation have touched the genitals of a stripper. Now I'm not using this as evidence, nor am I claiming that strippers are dirty, but you get the picture.

So cash is dirty. It has been contaminated. Now, as a behavioural scientist I feel that is important to indicate here that I am not epidemiologist. I had to google how to spell that word. I don't know whether cash is the right type of surface for the virus to stay alive (or at least active and contagious) on, or not. If so, I don't know I know my lane, and I'm staying in it! The only thing I know is that as far as marketing goes, you couldn't have killed cash of in a more convincing manner! If there is a big bad wolf pulling the strings of the world economy who wants us all to use e-money so we can be more easily tracked and controlled, well they are having a field day. Those who are most likely to rely on cash, the elderly and the poor, are the ones most heavily hit by the consequences of cash being (potentially) contagious. They have the least resources to bounce back from COVID-19, and they know it. As such, they are now heavily encouraged to "finally" leave cash behind and move into the 21st century.


Whether this, temporary, move away from cash is beneficial to curb the spreading of COVID-19 I genuinely don't know (if you find any numbers on it, DM me). As I said before, I'm not an epidemiologist, nor a virulogist: I know nothing. I'm just hoping that when we get back to normality, whatever the aftermath may look like, that we don't have an everlasting bad impression of cash. Sure, it was never seen as "squeaky clean", but to be associated with an epidemic is quite next level. From a marketing perspective it's a disaster! If you're pro-cash, that is. I just hope that when we're allowed within 1.5 metres (or 2 metres if you're in the UK) of each other again and when our cashiers no longer look at us with deepseated mistrust (I'm above 18, I swear), that we go back to cash. That it does not become a dirty mistake from our past. Because when it comes to managing money, sticking with budgets and being able to resist the temptation of impulse and unnecessary spending, cash is still king. Long live cash!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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