(Bloomberg) — In the most cashless society on the planet, even God now accepts digital payments.
A growing number of Swedish parishes have started taking donations via mobile apps. Uppsala’s 13th-century cathedral also accepts credit cards.
The churches’ drive to keep up with the times is the latest sign of Sweden’s rapid shift to a world without notes and coins. Most of the country’s bank branches have stopped handling cash; some shops and museums now only accept plastic; and even Stockholm’s homeless have started accepting cards as payment for their magazine. Go to a flea market, and the seller is more likely to ask to be paid via Sweden’s popular Swish app than with cash.
“Fifteen years ago I would withdraw my entire salary and put it in my wallet, so I knew how much I had left, but these days I never really carry cash,” said Lasse Svard, the acting vicar at the parish of Jarna-Vardinge, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Stockholm.
Swedes’ aversion to cash is increasingly showing up in money supply data. According to Statistics Sweden, notes and coins in public circulation dropped to an average of 56.8 billion kronor ($6.4 billion) in the first quarter of this year. That was the lowest level since 1990 and more than 40 percent below its 2007 peak with the pace of the decline accelerating to its fastest ever in 2016.
According to the central bank, which is also studying whether to launch its own digital currency, the main reason for the disappearing act is technical innovation.
Riksbank Deputy Governor Cecilia Skingsley notes that Swedes were early adopters of both personal computers and mobile phones (remember those Ericsson phones?), and that the country’s banks were quick to create sector-wide structures such as debit cards, credit cards and Swish, which has 5.5 million users and is owned by the country’s largest banks. Swedes also seem to trust those systems, she said in a recent interview in Stockholm.
“A drive for innovation has been created in Sweden to come up with cost-effective and user-friendly alternatives to cash,” Skingsley said. Cash is likely to “more or less disappear” as a means of payment in the private sector, she said.
But a cashless society is not without its challenges or critics.
Many pensioners are struggling to make payments in an online world, while privacy campaigners lament the fact that the state is acquiring greater control over what its citizens do. There are also concerns about the vulnerability of a cashless society in the event of an attack or major blackouts.
It seems that for now, the benefits — including lower business costs, more control over tax revenue and greater safety from criminals — outweigh the drawbacks.
In fact, Swedes have become so averse to cash that they’ve even been shunning it during the current regime of negative interest rates.
“The fact that people chose to hold so little cash in their wallets despite getting zero interest on their bank accounts emphasizes the strength of this trend even more,” Robert Bergqvist, chief economist at SEB AB, said by phone.
So far, the development has had little impact on monetary policy. But if cash were to disappear entirely, it would give extra powers to the central bank.
“Negative interest rates would be more powerful as there wouldn’t be any way to escape their impact,” Bergqvist said. “In a sense it would give the Riksbank more room for maneuver.”
With very few Swedes carrying cash, the Jarna-Vardinge and Uppsala parishes are now reaping the benefits of being tech-savvy. Not only do mobile app and card payments lower the risk of money being stolen, it’s also cheaper to rely on Swish since there’s a cost involved in depositing large amounts of cash at the bank. In Jarna-Vardinge, the use of Swish has also led to an increase in the amount of money raised, since many of the congregation’s 7,500 members are no longer limiting themselves to any spare coins found in their pockets.
It has also led churchgoers to engage in some new behaviors.
“One thing that’s quite funny is that when you collect these days, there are some who will raise their mobile phone in the air to show that they are giving,” said Mats Lagergren, a spokesman for the Swedish Church’s Uppsala parish.
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