Sleepwalking into a cashless society


Age UK calls for urgent government action, warning that being cut off from cash and banking services excludes people from society.

In its new Behind the Headlines report, 'Short-changed: How the decline of cash is affecting older people' by Age UK, reveals that one in five older people still rely on cash for everyday spending, but the closure of banks, ATM's (Automatic Teller Machines) and the increase in digital banking is making access to cash more problematic.

Findings from the Financial Lives 2020 Survey found that around 2.4 million people aged 65 and over in the UK relied on cash in their day-to-day life - using it for almost all their payments. [i]

While the pandemic has had a significant effect on spending behaviour and cash usage, £81 billion was still taken out from ATMs last year[ii]. Even amid national lockdowns, with older people shielding, few ATMs available and bank branches shut, it is evident that millions still needed cash for their essential spending.

Protecting the cash system is essential

To avoid the nation sleepwalking into becoming a cashless society, which ignores the needs of millions of citizens, Age UK is calling for the urgent introduction of a Universal Service Obligation (USO) on banks to guarantee access to cash for everyone.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: "The report demonstrates the continuing critical importance of cash in our society... Protecting the cash system is essential for enabling millions of citizens to go about their lives, and since it was still widely used during the pandemic when spending opportunities were few, it's going to be all the more important for us once we emerge from it and return to some kind of normality,

"Older people who use cash and their local branch are finding it increasingly impossible to manage their money because more and more barriers are being put in their way. They don't want to give up their independence by having to rely on a family member or neighbour, they want to keep control of how they do financial things - but they don't want to or can't do it online."

Sleepwalking into a cashless society

The last 15 months have seen a decline in the number of payments made in cash because people have had few opportunities to spend or are doing so online[iii]. In one of the Charity's Your Voice surveys during the pandemic, they discovered that one in six respondents who use cash found it challenging to do so[iv], and a quarter had been refused when they or someone on their behalf have tried to pay with cash. [v]

The decline in high street banks and local ATMs before the pandemic made access to cash even more problematic. Almost 13,000 free-to-use cash machines closed between 2017 and 2020. [vi]There are also significant differences in the number of ATMs across the UK, dependent on region, which directly affects older or vulnerable people within society. [vii]

Those who struggle getting around are finding it increasingly difficult to access their income, pensions, and savings, and in 2020 around 900,000 older people in the UK found it difficult to get to a cash point using ordinary forms of transport. [viii]

Alongside the plummeting number of ATMs, banks are deserting many communities with thousands of branches shut, reducing their hours, or scheduled to close. Since January 2015, 4,299 have closed, leaving high streets and town centres across the UK starved of access to cash and banking services. [ix]

Protecting our most vulnerable

With the national lockdowns leading to temporary closures of all but essential retail and the nation being asked to stay at home, there were severely restricted opportunities to spend cash. The more vulnerable people in society, including millions of older people, were asked to shield at home, relying on family, neighbours and volunteers to get shopping and pay bills on their behalf, with cash often the preferred payment or repayment method.

72-year-old Eileen told Age UK: "People were lovely [during the pandemic] and would do some shopping for us, but I didn't always have money in the house to pay them, and I couldn't access money. Finding loose change for somebody who went and got the paper for me; that's 70 pence, but then you realise you've only got a £10 note. That £10 would go so quickly, and I couldn't just go to the ATM [Automatic Teller Machines]. The ATM in our village is nearly always empty. All these little things that we take for granted suddenly become huge problems."

Age UK says it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in our society is willing or able to make all their financial transactions digitally, with 51% of those aged 65 or older not using or have not recently used interview banking. [x]

Many people with health conditions, disabilities and dexterity issues find paying in cash much easier than with a bank card or a phone. It's not easy for someone with sight loss to use a card reader or someone with bad arthritis in their hands to hit the right buttons on a smartphone. The use of cash also helps people on a low-income budget, paying back a carer or friend who shops for them and acting as an essential backup for those who are not online or live in an area with poor connectivity.

Abrahams said: "It's time for the Government to recognise how important banknotes and coins are to all our lives and treat the cash system as the essential piece of infrastructure it is – just like utilities, post and broadband. If the Government is serious about 'building back better' after the pandemic, then they must legislate to protect cash access within a reasonable travel distance of people's homes. This will not only help the millions of citizens of all ages who risk being excluded from society if cash is allowed to die but can also help revitalise our high streets as local businesses strive to recover from the last nightmarish 15 months."

[i] Figures from The FCA’s Financial Lives 2020 Survey - Attitudes data table (sheet AT12 table 127) (available on and accessed 26 May 2021) scaled up to population estimates using ONS mid- 2019 population estimates (sheet MYE1, ONS Mid-2019: April 2020 local authority district codes) (available on and accessed 26 May 2021).

[ii] Figures from LINK statistic and trends (available on and accessed 1 June 2021). Figure rounded to nearest billion.

[iii] From UK Finance’s UK Payment Markets Summary 2021 (available on and accessed 18 June 2021).

[iv] Age UK’s Your Voice panel is a self-selected panel and in November 2020 the panel consisted of 790 people aged 50+ years. The panel is not representative of the 50+ population and is particularly weighted towards those aged over 75 and those perhaps less likely to engage with other research or panels. For example, in this survey 41% of panellists are aged 75+ compared with only 22% of those aged 50+ across England. The panel also aims to include ‘seldom heard’ voices and panellists are recruited through a wide range of sources offering a choice of how to take part – online, by post or by telephone. Panellists were asked “since the start of the pandemic, how easy or difficult has it been for you to get cash from your account?” with a baseline of 547 panellists who have a bank account or use cash.

[v] Age UK’s Your Voice panellists were asked “since the start of the pandemic have you, or someone on your behalf, been refused when trying to pay for goods and services with cash?” with a base all (599) respondents.

[vi] From a high in 2017 of 54,599, the number of free-to-use ATMs across the UK connected to the LINK network fell by 12,872 to 41,727 in 2020[ix], a fall of 23.58%. Figures from LINK statistics and trends available on and accessed 1 June 2021).

[vii] Figures from House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Bank branch and ATM statistics (available on and accessed 1 June 2021). Author’s calculations with percentage figure rounded to nearest whole number.

[viii] Figures from The FCA's Financial Lives 2020 Survey - Demographics data table (sheet Demo’s table 160) (available at and accessed 26 May 2021) scaled up to population estimates using ONS mid-2019 population estimates (sheet MYE1, ONS Mid-2019: April 2020 local authority district codes) (available at and accessed 26 May 2021).

[ix] Figures from Which? (available on and accessed 21 June 2021).

[x] Figures from the ONS’s Internet access - Households and individuals, 2020 (Table 6) (available on and accessed 1 June 2021).