Earlier on in the week I was sitting outside a bar in Leadenhall Market when a very thin, nervous looking, figure approached. “Got any change?”, he asked. Mentally weighing up all the arguments for and against giving to beggars I went reflexively for my standard response: “sorry, I don’t have any cash”. Muttering to himself the guy moved on.
As I sat there afterwards it dawned on me that I hadn’t just trotted out an excuse: what I had said was literally true. I had no cash. In fact I never have cash these days. Taxis used to be my main reason to have a few quid, but since they went contactless that has changed. I now go for weeks paying only with a card or my phone. My life has become just a little bit more convenient and easy, and almost without me noticing.
But every now and then being cashless doesn’t feel convenient at all. When I encounter buskers on the Underground, charity collectors in the street, even beggars I have a moment of thinking how annoying it is not to have a few coins, at least. Paying the cleaner, tipping in a restaurant, giving the bin men something at Christmas – all of these ‘cash-based moments’ are now less easy than they were before. I’ve been wondering who would fill the gap with a way to give a few pounds without using cash.
That’s why it was good today to read that the Poppy Appeal this year is going contactless. The British Legion and Cardnet are making it possible to make donations in the street on a mobile terminal. This is a great idea (and they’ve got some good PR out of it too), and I’m sure other big charities will follow. But I’m not sure it is a full answer to the problem of giving small amounts in a cashless society.
Take, for example, a random busker. Maybe if it was one of those ‘official’ ones on the Underground, then you might feel okay about tapping your card to give a little. Would you do that with some random guy in the street? Would they even have the technology? Would they have a bank account? It all seems pretty unlikely to me. Which means they will struggle as cash disappears from everyday life.
So now I’m waiting to see which big retail bank will cotton on to this, providing cheap mobile devices to people who might otherwise be left behind by the contactless world. Maybe someone is already working on a device that allows quick and secure payments to be made which can then be turned into cash at the nearest branch. Whoever gets there first will get a lot of kudos, as they make a real contribution to ending financial exclusion, as well as keeping buskers on the street and charities in business. Who will step up?