The Current

As Sweden gives up cash, churches let worshippers make an online offering during Sunday service

The switch to a cashless society is happening fast in Sweden — too fast according to some officials. Could the rest of the world soon follow suit?
As people stop carrying cash, they might have found themselves with empty pockets when the plate is passed on Sunday. (The Joplin Globe, Ryan Richardson/AP)

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It might be worth checking that jar of leftover vacation coins in your spare room, because the Swedish krona could soon become a collector's item.

The country is now the most cashless society in the world, with even churches offering online banking details so worshippers aren't caught with empty pockets during Sunday services.

"When it comes to that point in the Sunday service where the worshippers would usually put money into a collection bag, people are asked to… donate electronically," explains David Crouch, a journalist based in Gothenburg.

"And then they'll hold their phone up, to show everybody that they're good believers."

Less than half of bank branches in the country now handle cash, says Crouch, and even the number of ATMs on the streets are in decline.

Instead, more than six million Swedes — the majority of the adult population — now use Swish, a money-transfer app. Type in the recipient's cellphone number, hit send, and the money appears in their account instantly.

While many people have embraced the move away from cash, officials are worried about the elderly being left behind, as well as the collapse of the infrastructure for handling cash.

Crouch also warns that the economy is struggling to keep up.

"A public toilet, for example — you can still find yourself in need of a toilet, but needing a five kronor coin."

Public washrooms are trying to catch up by installing electronic locks, but opening these requires a cellphone.

This reliance on technology is problematic for older people, Crouch says, whose concerns are being championed by a national movement called Kontantupproret, or the Cash Rebellion.

"They speak for people in rural areas, who really do rely on cash and would be in a lot of trouble were Sweden to become completely cashless," he says.

"But at the same time the Cash Rebellion is raising serious and well-argued points about the potentially undemocratic nature of what's happening."

With an explosion in payment methods that use apps and online platforms, people are getting out of the habit of carrying cash. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The governor of the Swedish National Bank, Stefan Ingves, is also concerned about the speed of the changeover.

"His main concern was that the transition is being managed by the private sector banks," Crouch says. "It's got nothing to do with the central bank."

"This is taking control away from the public sector and putting it into private sector hands."

Ultimately were there to be a crisis in the banks... that could cause enormous problems for Sweden in the future."

No more loonies?

One Canadian restaurant is already following Sweden's example: the Mad Radish opened two locations in Ottawa last year and went cashless from day one.

Stephanie Howarth, the restaurant's co-founder, says that they were looking to get rid of the "bottleneck at the point of sale, where people were fumbling for cash, and the exchange of money."

"Since the advent of tap pay in particular, it's just so much faster without it."

Swedish consumers are abandoning the krona, but some people, like the elderly, are not ready to adapt to the technological alternatives. (Reuters)

The benefits go beyond the end of the meal however. Howarth says that they no longer have security concerns about sending staff to the bank with large deposits, or hygienic issues with handling money every day.

"We don't need bookkeepers who are charged with reconciling cash, looking out for a shrink," she adds. "We don't need to install safes in our stores, it's really a win all around."

These operational savings offset the costs incurred with card transactions, she says, and so far customers in the restaurants haven't complained.

Howarth says she has had some complaints via email, but from people who heard about it in the media, not actual customers.

"They have concerns about privacy and I understand that, but our customers really haven't had an issue with it," she says.

"Although I will say my 70-year-old father was a big complainer. He's also upset that we don't serve steak, so what are you gonna do?"

Listen to the full conversation at the top of the page, which includes an interview with German economist Malte Krueger, about why his country is lagging behind on the cashless revolution.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.


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