Europeans still love paying cash, even if they don’t know it

Digital currencies may be getting all the buzz these days, but notes and coins still reign supreme in most of Europe.

Cash made up around 79% of everyday payments across the euro area last year, according to a European Central Bank study. Almost a quarter of consumers also kept some cash at home as a precaution, and 20% said they had a high-denomination note – €200 euros or €500 – in their possession in the year before the survey was conducted.

As the study notes, the results “challenge the perception that cash is rapidly being replaced by cashless means of payment.”

The picture differs across the 19 member states though. Cash is most dominant in southern Europe, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, where it in accounts for 80% of all payment transactions at point-of-sale. That figures drops to 45% to 54%in the Netherlands, Estonia and Finland.

The study also found that many people don’t actually know their own payment habits. When asked how they prefer to pay, a larger share of respondents said card, not cash. That may be because nearly two-thirds of all transactions are below €15, the report said. Purchases of coffee and lottery tickets don’t stick in the mind as much as, say, a new pair of shoes.

People mostly seem to remember the larger-value payments which they make less regularly, and tend to forget how frequently they make low-value payments on a daily basis.

The experience of some countries shows how things can change though. While contactless cards accounted for just 1% of payments across the euro area in 2016, the figure was almost 10% for the tech-savvy Netherlands. The authors of the study say that the small size of contactless payments – 81% of transactions are below €25 – give the technology great potential.

This could have a significant impact on the use of cash for smaller-value payments. Especially given that respondents who prefer cash and those who prefer cards both appear to place importance on the transaction speed.

For those who prefer physical money though, an important question is where’s the nearest cash dispenser? The survey found that satisfaction with access to ATMs and banks for easy withdrawals was highest in tiny Cyprus and Malta, but a bit of a struggle in Latvia and Lithuania.