Cash day: How to stick to a commitment to pay with notes and coins in London

Even tickets for Hamilton, a musical about the US founding father who devised the dollar, could not be bought in cash

A London protester demonstrates against the rise of a cashless society and growth of the digital economy. Getty Images
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For the early birds on their way to work, plastic, not cash, is king. So I found out this morning as I attempted to spend the day making only cash payments.

My preferred ride, a rental bike costing £1.65, could not be paid for in cash, and neither could a bus ticket, at £1.75. A single train journey more than doubled in price from £2.80 to £6.70, if purchased in cash.

The UK has refused to give customers a legal right to pay in cash. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday said it would not be "appropriate" for the government to force shopkeepers make that service available for customers.

“It is a different thing for the government to start imposing on individual businesses,” Mr Sunak told GB News. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. But what we can do is regulate the financial services industry so that people do have access to cash themselves."

Yet the uncertain future of cash has raised concerns that some customers will be left isolated, or struggle to manage their finances. A 2022 report from the Royal Society of Arts found almost half of the population (49 per cent) said they would struggle to live in a cashless society.

New laws to make cash more accessible were unveiled this month. Banks will have to provide cash services within three miles (4.8km) of customers who live in rural areas and one mile for those in towns and cities.

But actually spending the cash in London remains a hurdle – at least on the early morning commute.

At High Street Kensington underground station, the long stream of commuters ignored the four ticket machines that take cash payments. And just as well, because only one of these returned change.

Coffee and breakfast in those early hours was a challenge. Though enough take-away chains were open at 7am, of the six I went to only one accepted cash payments.

I found respite at my local newsagent, where I could buy a newspaper, top up my phone, and even get a machine-made coffee with cash.

Lottery tickets and phone top-ups were available only for those paying cash, the woman at the till added.

The shop has been on the street for four decades but many like it have closed in recent years, due to the soaring costs of rent.

My first attempt to pay in cash was foiled, as I discovered that the old £20 note I had pulled out from the back of a drawer was no longer accepted. Luckily, my area is well served by ATMs.

Things changed in the neighbourhood as the morning progressed. Independently owned cafes, which open a bit later, do accept cash, as do dry cleaners, laundrettes and high street shops.

Ahmed Mohammed, owner of the cafe Sip and Rise in Kensington, says many of his customers still pay with cash.

“I have to be flexible,” he said "I prefer card payments because they’re easier and more efficient. There’s no waiting around for coins and no mistakes can be made."

Mr Anderson, who manages the antiques shop Lacquer Chest, said card payments made running the business a lot easier.

“When I first started in 1996, we used to go to the banks twice a day,” he said.

The last cash payment he received was about six weeks ago. "I wouldn't take a payment of £2,000 or £3,000 in cash, but smaller sales under £50 is fine."

But not all business owners on the street agreed. Pan, who opened his Greek deli on the same road 38 years ago, said card payments had made “everything” more expensive.

“When customers pay with card, it’s the banks that make money,” he said.

A British Retail Consortium survey found that retailers were charged 0.273 per cent of every card payment, totalling £1.15 billion in 2021.

Other places had been forced to adapt to the declining use of cash by making card payments more available.

St Mary Abbotts Church installed card machines for donations more than five years ago, before the pandemic led to the biggest shift towards contactless payments.

The transition to digital payments is feared to affect older people and those living in rural communities the most. But at Victoria station, office workers and tourists were the first victims.

Most local lunch spots, including a new food court, and restaurants in new office buildings opposite the station did not accept cash.

One sandwich chain did take cash but there was no seating inside or near by. That leaves supermarkets, for which the tills accepting cash payments are ever-dwindling.

This lack of options has provoked the ire of employee Marek Kowalski. “I struggle to use cash or to get cash in the area,” he said.

Mr Kowalski works at H Stain, a jeweller that was established in Victoria 109 years ago. There, he confirms, cash is still accepted – and even welcomed, by him at least.

Entertainment for the evening was also limited.

Tickets for Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, a musical about the US founding father who devised the dollar, could not be bought from the box office in cash.

Even the theatre bars, a security guard there confirmed, were card only.

The same applied to the sports bar next door. Luckily, a kiosk outside the station selling evening bus tours of London from £28 still accepted cash payments, as did the slot machines in a nearby pub.

Updated: September 03, 2023, 10:25 PM