I haven't seen or used cash in more than a year – and I don't miss it

Switch to digital payments accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic and trend is likely to stay

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 18, 2020.    
Cashless payments at the Al Raha Mall on the first day of reopening during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Victor Besa / The National
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Reporter:

Once upon a time, cash ruled my world. And that was a pretty normal way to live in the UAE circa 2008, when everybody expected to be paid in cash, including the guy who’s side hustle was washing your car every other day. “Cash only, ma’am,” he would say when it came time to pay him at the end of the month.

Then there was the Persian carpet seller, who’d come knocking on my door once a month with a treasure trove of musty smelling, but beautifully handmade rugs slung over his shoulder. I bought a few of those – but always in cash.

He’d let me try them out on my floors for a month at a time and he’d be back to seal the sale and collect his cash – or not, but not before talking me into trying out another carpet for another month until he eventually made a (cash) sale.

Those were the early days of my time in the Emirates, when I would try to plan my expenses for the week and make sure I had a steady supply of cash on me. Inevitably, though, I’d find myself making a mad dash to an ATM at odd times of the day or night because I’d run out of money.

Those days, of course, are long gone.

By the time the Covid-19 movement restrictions were introduced in March last year, I remember having just Dh25 ($6.80) in my wallet. While my reliance on cash had been waning for quite a while as contactless payments became more widely accepted, it accelerated once I started working from home.

I actually used that Dh25 to pay Emirates Post after they delivered a package to my home in April last year. At the time, I didn’t realise just how important that moment was: not only was it the last time I used cash, but it also marked the last time I set eyes on a banknote.

The realisation that I’d been living a completely cashless life hit me just the other week, when I was moving apartments. The building management company wanted me to pay cash for the property registration fee and the security deposit.

Once upon a time, I would have been embarrassed to say I didn’t have any cash to pay for something. But after explaining to the building management company why I didn’t have any cash, they were happy to accept an online transfer. Now all I have to do is convince them that four rent cheques a year should be replaced with automatic quarterly transfers, but that’s easier said than done (and another story).

Of course, I'm not the only one to avoid using cash because I'm worried about the spread of infection through banknotes and coins. Millions of others have also switched to digital payments and e-wallets and are opting to go cashless, according to a March survey by moneytransfers.com.

The survey, which used YouGov data to rank 21 countries that are likely to accept a fully cashless economy, found that consumers in India, the UAE and Indonesia were the most likely to opt for digital payments.

So it's no surprise then that consumer spending through digital wallets will hit $10 trillion in 2025, up from $5.5tn in 2020, a report by the UK-based Juniper Research said.

Meanwhile, another study by Standard Chartered last September found that 64 per cent of respondents expect the UAE to be a fully cashless society by 2030.

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Once upon a time, I would have been embarrassed to say I didn't have any cash to pay for something

So it seems that our cashless lives will continue. Do I miss cash? No, I don't. But to be honest, I haven’t thought about it – and remember, it took me a while to even realise I hadn’t seen a banknote for more than a year.

But I do wonder how those people with the side hustles are faring, like the guy who used to wash my car. Does he run around with a card reader in his back pocket now? Or perhaps these days, he’s got an e-wallet and can accept instant transfers from his customers.

I know I don’t miss cash – in fact, I manage my money better these days as I’m more aware of when I spend it, particularly as I do everything online now, from paying bills to buying groceries, furniture, clothes and gifts.

My cashless life, however, would be complete if I could convince my landlord to finally accept automatic transfers. That said, I won't give up hope that the UAE’s rental market will one day catch up with the rest of the country and embrace 21st-century modes of payment.

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