Cashless buying poses financial risk for those without self-control

The trend of digital wallets making things easier than ever to buy is becoming increasingly popular with consumers, and setting off alarm bells for some advisers who say it amplifies the risk for Canadians to unknowingly blow past their monthly budgets.
Apps such as this one from Starbucks make it easier than ever to pay for purchases. But there is a cost to our monthly budgets, experts say. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

Financial planner Victor Godinho said goodbye to his wallet four years ago and hasn't looked back.

The 23-year-old adviser at the VTAG Financial Group Inc. in Toronto was one of the early adopters of the "cashless" lifestyle, a move to ditch pocket change and bills in favour of plastic cards and mobile phone payments.

"I simply decided that change and cash were too frustrating to deal with," he said.

New risks

It's a trend that's becoming increasingly popular with consumers, and setting off alarm bells for some advisers who say it amplifies the risk for Canadians to unknowingly blow past their monthly budgets.

What makes digital transactions so dangerous, they say, is the intangible technology is attractive and easy to use, but also quick to deplete your savings.

"We're getting further away from the reality of making these purchases," said Jeff Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services.

"Literally, you could be working out on a treadmill, looking at your smartphone, and press one button to buy an item. It shows up at your door a day later."

Not so long ago, wallets and change purses were a handy barometer of your bank account. You'd take $100 out and, when it disappeared, the void would trigger a subconscious warning to pump the brake on your spending habits.

Those days are quickly fading as retailers and payment processors aggressively roll out new digital technologies, from online shopping to tap payments at cash registers.

PayPal, the global online payments processor, has backed several online surveys conducted by Nielsen on behalf of the company that show that Canadians are eager to adopt new digital payment methods. A recent poll showed that 45 per cent of 1,504 Canadians surveyed said they were ready to adopt emerging technologies — wearable devices like smartwatches — to make mobile payments.

Findings like that concern Harley Lockhart, an adviser who runs a practice in Kelowna, B.C. and chairs Advocis, the Financial Advisors Association of Canada.

"Tapping is probably worse than when we used to have to sign a credit card receipt," he said. "It's such an insignificant action."

"An individual will spend more if they don't put physical cash out," Lockhart added.

Cash should be king

Canadians should use cash whenever they can, he suggested. Shoppers also need to carefully monitor their credit card spending habits and cancel any cards they can't afford to pay, even if it's only a month overdue.

Other advisers say consumers should take a more active approach to fend off the onslaught of digital conveniences.

Retailers are chasing new levels of engagement with their customers by sending out more promotional email offers and "push" advertisements to smartphones targeted at specific demographics.

Schwartz suggests that shoppers cut ties before it's too late.

Reconsider whether you really need "flash sale" messages from retailers in your email Inbox, he said. They're sent on a regular basis to encourage more transactions, but are often promoted to customers like they're rare discounts.

"Sometimes we need to take a step back and unsubscribe from all of that stuff," he said.

Schwartz also recommends email filters to siphon alluring sales pitches into another folder, removing the temptation of daily impulse buys that seem too good to pass up.

Also, detach yourself from the growing popularity of push marketing technology on smartphones before you get hooked, he said. Those campaigns send you discounts while you stand within a few feet of a storefront and appeal to your most primal shopping habits.

"Unless you have tremendous willpower and discipline, you may get sucked in," Schwartz said.

For advertisers, smartphones have become a gateway to a heightened level of consumer interactivity, which can put addition strain on your bank account.

Deactivate the auto-refill feature on smartphone apps for coffee shops, which make your daily purchases nearly undetectable because they restore gift card balances every time you fall below a balance threshold. The money is pulled directly from your bank account or credit card, which makes it hard to track.

And if your online shopping habits are getting out of hand, install free web filtering software like Time Tracker, which logs the time spent on specific websites so that you can monitor your behaviour.

If you need stricter enforcement, a Google Chrome extension called StayFocusd locks you out of certain sites after you've spent too long wasting your time.

Despite criticism about the growing popularity of digital payments, there are many upsides to the technology that can help you better manage your finances, said Doug Stephens president of Retail Prophet, an industry advisory services company.

"Technology gives us far more structure to operate within and tools to help us," he said. "We have the potential to become much more responsible as consumers."

Godinho agrees with that perspective. Since going digital four year ago, he has actively monitored his daily spending habits with Mint, a free smartphone and tablet app that compiles your transactions into easy-to-understand charts and allows you to set financial goals.

"I enjoy the ability to have everything tracked," he said.

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