BBC Future

In Depth

Can you spend a week without cash?

About the author

Frank Swain is Communities Editor at New Scientist, author of How To Make A Zombie, and a freelance science writer for Mosaic, Wired, Slate, BBC Radio 4, and others. You can find him on Twitter as @SciencePunk.

Can you spend a week without cash?

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Is it possible to survive on the host of digital and virtual currency options now available? Frank Swain says goodbye to his wallet and finds out.

The crunch point came when I stood outside a cafe in the bucolic Devonshire town of Totnes, pondering the questionable ethics of taking food away from a homeless person in the name of journalistic enterprise. I’d ducked into a covered alley to escape a sudden springtime downpour and the icy ankle-deep stream it sent coursing through the narrow streets, and there I chanced across the Happy Apple cafe. A sign in the window tallied the number of “suspended purchases” on offer: six coffees, two snacks and one meal had been paid for by the cafe’s previous visitors, and set aside for those who couldn’t afford them. I could have done with a hot meal to warm my cold bones. And I wasn’t about to let myself buy one.

For the previous week, I’d been trying to live without money. Or rather, to see if it was possible to live in a regular town in the UK without traditional forms of currency. I’d been inspired after visiting the Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum in March, an annual conference in London that discusses the future of money and how we use it. I was surprised to learn that we are not moving toward a unified currency, a kind of global credit that could be spent the world over. Instead, the experts are predicting a rise in so-called community currencies, semi-official forms of money that are exchanged within ad hoc groups.

There are hundreds of alternative currencies in the world, from the Microsoft Points traded by Xbox gamers, to the Co-op supermarket’s savings stamps. Virtual items in online games can have real value, and thefts of in-game items are occasionally settled in real-life courts. With the recent pinioning of Cypriot savings accounts and a spike in the value of electronic BitCoins, I wondered whether a citizen of a European country that has not entirely escaped the continent’s economic woes might do better to eschew official currencies. Could I live in a parallel world of credits, coupons and cryptocurrencies?

It’s an idea not without precedent. In 1932, the Austrian town of Worgl printed its own currency known as Freigeld, which was designed to continually decrease in value by 1% every month and thus discourage hoarding. The experiment was a tremendous success, and the town’s economic boon in the midst of the Great Depression became known as the “miracle of Worgl”. 

In times of economic uncertainty, official currency loses its allure. “There have been occasions that the public fled national banks in favour of financial service providers,” says technology consultant Dave Birch, who runs the Tomorrow’s Transactions blog at Consult Hyperion. “Kenya has the most successful mobile payment system in the world, M-Pesa. In the unrest following the 2007 elections, many Kenyans took money out of banks and put it into the M-Pesa mobile [payment] system.” Birch explains that these people knew that M-Pesa’s parent company, Vodafone, is a multinational company, and therefore judged it a safer place to keep their savings than a Kenyan high-street bank.

Community charge

There are a few good reasons to try and live outside of official currencies, but plenty of bad ones. Criminals, endlessly devising creative ways to exchange and store their ill-gotten gains make great contributions to parallel economies. Jewellery and art works are useful proxies for real money because they hold value and are easily transported – and better yet, can be passed off as fakes to inquisitive authorities. It would be a rare customs official who could discern a genuine Old Master from a half-decent copy.

Law-abiding citizens of many countries have switched to unofficial currencies, especially during cash shortages. At the beginning of the 19th Century, Britain lacked the necessary low-denomination currency for day-to-day transactions, forcing people to get by on trust, barter, promissory slips and scrips until some bright spark invented small change. As recently as 2012, British supermarkets were reporting bulk thefts of chewing gum, which is used in some parts of Romania as a substitute currency. Surely with the aid of 21st -Century technology, I’d be able to shake off sterling’s chains? I had a list of goals, and if I could carry out these transactions without touching pounds or pence (real or electronic), I could claim it is possible to live in the UK without the country’s official currency.

As it happens, the Happy Apple cafe is one of the few places in Britain where I might be able buy a coffee while complying with this self-imposed challenge. Totnes residents have a reputation for being fiercely loyal to local businesses, and have been running their own version of the Worgl experiment since 2007. It’s just one of a variety of alternative currency projects in operation around the UK. Foremost amongst these is the Bristol Pound, with £140,000 ($210,000) currently in circulation. Brixton, Stroud and Lewes also boast their own local currency schemes. The driving force behind these initiatives—the Transition Towns movement – encourages communities to build local resilience to outside economic and environmental forces. Like its kin, the Totnes Pound is only accepted within the town itself, a restriction that is intended to keep money circulating within the local economy instead of being leaked farther afield.

For all its virtues this system doesn’t seem to work for one simple reason – I can’t find anyone to sell me some. “People take them home as mementos,” the owner of a gift store sighs. “They’re forever having to print more, and obviously they can’t charge for the notes – a pound is a pound – so it’s a problem.” The shop is a clutter of porcelain figures, tea towels, crystal jewellery, calendars, fudge, snowglobes and postcards. A couple of damp tourists pick at the goods, waiting for the rain to stop. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to buy the first item on my list – a wedding gift – without resorting to cash. “So long as I get the real pound, I don’t care,” the man winks as he rings up my purchase. I fail.

Above all else, I need somewhere to live. I put the question to my landlord – or rather, the tenancy holder who sublets my room to me. Could we come to some kind of alternative arrangement? “If I owned my place then I could be interested in swapping rent money for decoration, house renovation, gardening, cooking type deals, stuff I have less time for,” she says. But how many cut lawns and mopped floors equate to a month’s rent? “I guess I would likely convert the rent money into hours of work, depending on level of job and technical details,” she says. The point is moot though. “As I do not own my house,” she concludes, “I would only be interested in wonga.” (Wonga being slang for cash.)

Booking a holiday – the third task on my list – also presents a unique set of problems. I’d assumed the flights would be fairly straightforward, with a well-established air miles system in place for most major airlines. After a few calls, I’ve found a friend willing to trade a large stash of Avios air miles with me in exchange for cold, hard PayPal dollars. However, it turns out that all air miles are not created equal. Airlines have coalesced into groups, each offering their own loyalty system. I have my heart set on flying to Bangkok with KLM because Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport offers the best stopover experience, with free wi-fi, plentiful soft furnishings and a library. But the Dutch airline is partnered to the Flying Blue group. So instead of KLM, I’d have to stump up nearly double the price for a direct flight with British Airways, or travel with one of the other members of OneWorld Alliance, such as Cathay Pacific, which flies via Hong Kong at three times the price of a KLM ticket. My cash card jeers at me from my pocket. Three-nil to sterling.

I also need to renew my passport. It’s a surprise to discover that Her Majesty’s Passport Office is only too happy to comply with my unusual restrictions. HMPO accepts postal orders, a curious little throwback to the 18th Century that has lately experienced a resurgence in popularity. Postal orders enable money to be sent securely between individuals without drawing on a personal bank account, like a cheque would. Like the air miles, I can buy one in advance, but this time through official channels. Accepted throughout much of the British Commonwealth, they have become a popular way to settle small transnational debts, such as those that come with eBay sales. The fee for making one out to HMPO is £12 – a whopping 15% surcharge on top of the cost of a passport, but, given how my other efforts to avoid handling sterling are going, it’s a small price to pay for the victory it bestows.

Food stamps

Organising the weekly grocery shop – the final item on my list – was less successful. At first, I didn’t feel any need to be worried. Every major supermarket in Britain has a loyalty card scheme, several of which have grown so big that they’ve spilled out to cover restaurants, leisure centres, gyms, florists and much more. It would be easy, I thought. The points weren’t real money, but were widely accepted as such. It was perfect. So I buzzed the team at Nectar to ask where I could get a loyalty card pre-loaded with points. “I’m not quite sure how that would work,” the befuddled rep responded. “The only way to get points on the card is to start collecting...” It turns out the problem with loyalty cards is that you’re expected to show loyalty by regularly spending money on other things, earning a few points on each occasion. I scour eBay, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a trade in pre-loaded Nectar cards. This is in contrast to the US, which has a roaring grey-market trade in exchanging electronic food stamps for cash. These electronic welfare cards can’t be used to purchase cigarettes or alcohol, so inevitably some people are willing to sell them for liquid currency. A motion for a similar system in the UK was quietly withdrawn in 2012 out of fear of the unregulated trade that might arise.

Eventually, I manage to convince a friend to give me an antiquated Nectar card, under the solemn promise to reimburse her in kind for however many points happen to be abandoned on it. Arriving at the self-service checkout believing that I have enough points to pay for a week’s supply of pizza and beer, I run the card once, twice, three times through the scanner. It beeps plaintively but offers nothing more. I take the card to the customer service desk, hoping they won’t notice the incongruous gender difference between the cardholder’s name and the man standing before them, only to discover the Nectar card has wilted over time and is thoroughly unresponsive. Chalk up another advantage to sterling – even the coins and notes that get ripped and dirtied in your pocket still work in shops.

By now it should be fairly obvious that my plan to live outside official channels has a fundamental problem. Even if transactions are free of sterling at the point of sale, I’m still forced to rely on old-fashioned pounds and pence to buy into these systems, whether they be Totnes pounds, postal orders or Nectar points.  Government-backed currency underlies all of these exchanges. I cast around for something that, once purchased, could at least offer a similar level of liquidity, practicability, and stability as traditional currencies.

So I turn to the monetary system a la mode: BitCoins. One of the attractions of this cryptocurrency is that as a peer-to-peer system it lacks any central planning, government or otherwise, so I won’t have to worry about a Cypriot-style lockdown on my savings.

Setting up a BitCoin wallet is the easy part. Filling it proves to be much more difficult. If I was a patient man, I could leave my computer to “mine” for BitCoins, using its processing power to slog away at the coalface of the BitCoin economy, crunching blocks of encrypted data in exchange for virtual coins like the world’s most tedious version of Super Mario Bros. But the returns are miniscule, and unless I commandeer a supercomputer or a global botnet to do the legwork, I’d be better off mining loose change from the backs of old sofas. Instead I pay a visit to BitCoin Central, one of the most popular BitCoin trading services. It’s partnered with a French bank, Credit Mutuel Arkea, which provides a way to port my real world currency into a cryptic one. But after I agree to the eye-watering £17 transaction fee my bank demands for transferring a few bits of data across the English Channel, an unexplained error in the online form repeatedly blocks my progress. It’s Saturday afternoon and sunny outside, so I give up for the weekend, resolving to visit my bank in person first thing on Monday morning.

When I explain my plan to Birch, the Tomorrow’s Transactions blogger, he’s more sanguine about the idea of converting life savings into BitCoins to escape Europe’s struggling economy. “BitCoin holds no respite from risks of currency,” he warns. “And what’s more, BitCoin Central is not a bank. Part of being a bank is to take deposits and make loans, but there is no lending and borrowing with BitCoin Central.” This hits at the heart of the problem with community currencies. Aside from their restricted use, you can’t squeeze much growth out of your savings. Keeping your money as BitCoins is like stuffing cash under the mattress: it’s interest free. Birch’s message is clear. Not only is cashing in my savings as BitCoins a dangerous plan, it’s a dumb one.

I don’t have long to wait before his warnings pan out. On Monday morning, I fire up my laptop for a final stab at getting hold of some BitCoins, only to discover my virtual bank has suffered a very real robbery. Hundreds of BitCoins have been stolen, and all transactions are suspended. It turns out that electronic vaults are just as fallible as real ones.

That seemed an appropriate point to end my experiment. I have little doubt the future will bring a diversification in what we think of as money, in its official and unofficial forms, as well as a diversification in how we spend it, and in how it’s stolen. But I won’t be giving up my cash card any time soon.

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