British journalist, Toby Walne, writes that he could not spend his £100 in cash for 24 hours in Stockholm, an indication how Sweden has become a cashless society.
He writes that as Britain is racing towards a cashless society like a juggernaut without brakes, they were behind the curve as in Sweden, cash is already an endangered species.
He said armed with his £100 to convert into kronor and 24 hours at his disposal, he visited the capital Stockholm to see whether he think – while speaking to those who believe the leap into a cashless society has been a big mistake.
Below is his dairy for the day
11am At busy Skavsta airport, 65 miles south west of Stockholm, there is a solitary money exchange kiosk. Cashier Johanna points to a number displayed on a digital screen above her head and then a machine spewing out tickets, saying: ‘Ta ett konummer tack’ – please take a number. I pick up ticket 139 and wait patiently to be served.
Johanna laughs when I specifically request banknotes featuring Hollywood screen legend Greta Garbo and film director Ingmar Bergman – two of my all-time film favourites who were put on Swedish banknotes five years ago.
‘Do you collect money?’ she asks. I pocket four 200-kronor ‘Bergman’ notes and four 100-kronor ‘Garbos’. Holding cash in Sweden has now become something of a novelty, with barely one per cent of transactions by value completed in cash.
Five years ago the idea of Sweden becoming a cashless society was no more than a daydream, led by campaigners such as Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus. The singer felt it would help stamp out crime, halting bank robbers in their tracks and leaving burglars with no cash to steal.
Yet as soon as banks and card providers got wind of this idea of a brave new cashless society, they fast-tracked it into reality. The reason was simple: more profit for them. And they left retailers with little choice but to accept it.
12 noon The two bus ticket machines at the airport take no cash. One says: ‘Automaten är ur funktion.’ Even I can work out this means it is broken. I am forced to buy a 159 kronor (£14) ticket on my credit card.
After tapping in my PIN, a slip of paper with a barcode slithers out of the machine. I scan it on a contactless reader as I step on the bus. No need for money in this brave new world. Indeed, Sweden’s transport system – be it taxis, the metro, trams, buses, trains and petrol stations – is now virtually cashless.
After my 80-minute journey to Stockholm, I catch up with Mats Philipson, chairman of the Stockholm branch of the political group Pirate Party. He believes that behind the scenes the Government is panicking about the country’s lack of access to cash. ‘Parliament knows things have gone too far,’ he says, ‘which is why last year its Civil Contingencies Agency began writing to everyone in the country suggesting they stockpile coins and banknotes in case of an emergency, computer hack or power cut. The threat of cyber terrorism is not the only concern. The details card providers, internet giants and banks now hold on our spending habits is valuable information that can be sold on.’
All a bit frightening and sinister.
2pm THE Swedish have a relaxed cafe culture ritual known as ‘fika’ – a term for a coffee break with cake. Lured by the smell of fresh baking I step into cafe Fabrique to order a kanelbulle (cinnamon roll) and coffee, costing 68 kronor.
In hope more than expectation, I wave a Garbo note in front of waitress Lova Carlsson. The 20-year-old blushes and apologises, but defends the fact that the cafe – like many in Stockholm – will not accept cash.
‘I feel safer with cards,’ she says, ‘There is now no money on site to attract the attention of thieves.’
Yet Lova does believe the move to a cashless society has been rushed. She says: ‘We cannot go back now. But many of our elderly and vulnerable people, especially those without bank accounts, are being abandoned.’
Despite the cash-free blitz, 140,000 of Sweden’s two million pensioners still only use cash, while 15 per cent of Swedes say they would struggle without banknotes. Four years ago, Sweden’s supreme court said the nation’s publicly funded hospitals must accept cash from patients paying for goods and treatment – whether they wanted to or not. This followed an attempt by the hospitals to go cashless.
Sadly, this ruling did not extend to privately run firms such as shops, restaurants, pharmacies and banks. Even builders and cleaners are now embracing cashless payment.
Sweden’s parliament is currently exploring ways to force private firms to accept cash. But most people fear it is all too late, even though 70 per cent of Swedes still want cash as a payment option.
3pm The bustling outdoor market of Hotorget sells flowers, fruit and vegetables. Nearly all the stalls carry the logos of card payment companies Visa, Mastercard and American Express. There is also an array of signs proclaiming: ‘Vi tar kort’ – we take cards.
But it is only when flower seller Fatima Erzwrum smiles and shakes her head sadly at my green and blue bank notes that I realise cash is forbidden. She explains: ‘Only card, no cash – everyone must pay this way. We move with the times.’
The 65-year-old has worked on the market for 47 years and is not nostalgic. She also has not lost her sales touch. She thrusts a bunch of begonias into my arms offering to knock 40 kronor off the 140 kronor asking price. I politely decline.
Electric scooters speed past the stalls – Stockholm’s answer to the Boris bike. Frustratingly, these speed merchants do not take coins, notes or even cards. They can only be used if you download an app to your smartphone and sweep a camera reader over a barcode on the scooter. In that sense, the scooters are embracing the next stage of payment technology.
There are ‘Swish’ signs plastered all over shop windows, advertising the fact they take payments by mobile phone. A buyer is given a code by the retailer that they can then use via their phone to authorise an immediate payment.
Sweden, it seems, is already preparing for the next step, a world without cash – or cards – just mobile-triggered payments. How fraud-proof this payment system is remains to be seen.
It is fully four hours before I am able to use some of my cash. On the ferry to Djurgarden island they are happy for me to pay by cash. Some 45 kronor spent. I rejoice, although fellow passengers seem to think I am just another mad Englishman.
4pm There is no avoiding the pop group Abba. Their footprint on Stockholm is everywhere – the band even have a museum dedicated to them on Djurgarden.
A polite notice says the museum does not accept cash – the 250 kronor entrance fee must be paid by card. Counter assistant Ulf Almberg explains: ‘It all began when the son of band member Bjorn was robbed of cash. The robbery coincided with the opening of the museum in 2013 and Bjorn insisted it should be card-only.’
Cash crime is certainly in decline. The latest data shows just two bank heists a year in Sweden, compared with 110 annually in the late 2000s.
But what about financial fraud, which – as in Britain – is on the rise? Backers of a cashless society point to the 200 kronor limit on contactless payments, but Ulf’s explanation is not enough to persuade me to enter the museum. Money, money, money? No, just card, card, card.
The Viking Museum, just down the road, is also cashless. I try to hand over 30 kronor for a refreshing ice cream at a nearby kiosk, but am met with a gentle shake of the head indicating a big ‘no’. I feel like screaming and Ebba Waldetoft, the 17-year-old vendor, is sympathetic.
‘It’s crazy isn’t it?’ she says, before charming me into buying a chocolate cone for 30 kronor by card. Even when nature calls, the toilet in Berzelii Park demands a payment of 5 kronor by card before the loo door opens. Contactless it has to be. I can’t even spend a penny!
Elizabet Mazic is in the park taking a break from her job as a hairdresser. She fears the cashless revolution is preventing the younger generation from understanding the value of money.
‘I have a 17-year-old daughter who struggles with counting and hard cash,’ she says. ‘She is growing up without understanding the true value of money.
‘Contactless payments feel less painful financially and often you do not even look at the sum taken from your account. The problem with Swedes is that we do not challenge new ideas. We sleepwalked right into a cashless society.’
6pm Until recently many shops and restaurants put out a sign explaining they did not take cash – ‘vi tar inte kontanter’. But such notices are no longer necessary, as it is simply assumed.
At the Sushishopen restaurant I order a 105 kronor plate of sashimi and there is nothing to tell me cash is not accepted until it is time to pay. Chef Azjakgal Jargalsaihan wears clear plastic gloves as he slices through raw tuna with a worrying degree of menace. He stares right back when I offer money.
Cash is dirty,’ he says. I pay up and get out before he thinks of slicing me up into fillets.
Still itching to find a home for my notes, I discover there are places that refuse to give up on cash. At Bengans record shop Heidi Meliln whispers a secret: ‘We get a lot of people coming in to spend money that other retailers will not accept. Many record collectors have the same nostalgia for money as for vinyl, while tourists are so desperate to offload cash by the time they find us they spend their kronor.’
She’s right. I spend 199 kronor on Tom Waits’s Blue Valentine. I would have been tempted to buy his Small Change if I didn’t already own it.
9pm The Flying Dog ‘beer palace’ has 27 craft beers on tap, so it would be rude not to pay it a visit.
Head barman Loke Lundqvist shows insight beyond his 19 years, helped by being a George Orwell fan who has read 1984 five times. He says: ‘It concerns me how our government has been so weak allowing banks to act like Big Brother, pushing through this cashless society agenda without considering the consequences.
‘Once the banks monopolise payments they will ratchet up charges and have total power over how we spend. Why did no one think of this? I hold cash – take away this right and I lose financial control.’
Loke has a friend who has had a micro-chip embedded under the skin of the back of their hand so they need not carry a card. They just sweep their hand over a scanner to pay.
Some 4,000 Swedes have opted for this technology. But Loke is having none of it. He values the simple pleasure cash offers.
I spend 99 kronor on a glass of cloudy, delicious beer – and pay for it by cash. I’m in heaven.
11am I check out of my hotel. I pay 1,185 kronor by card though I could have paid in cash if I had enough of it. I might have gone in search of a cash machine, but I had only stumbled across two on my five-mile trek through the capital the previous day. As for the banks, most will no longer allow customers to withdraw and deposit cash over the counter. No wonder the branch network is shrinking.
Travelling back to the airport by train (295 kronor – no cash payments accepted) and boarding my flight back to Stansted airport, I do some maths.
In 24 hours, I have managed to spend just over a quarter of my cash (343 kronor) while making card payments of 1,842 kronor.
I searched high and low for one of the 140,000 Swedish pensioners who survive on cash alone. But they seem to have gone underground.
It is all too clear who the biggest winners are in a cashless society. As much as I love Stockholm (and loathe Abba), I can’t wait to get back to the cash of Blighty.