Cashless Society? Wait Long Long. 5 Reasons Why We Still Use Cash in Singapore

cash singapore

Like a lot of Singaporeans I know, I own several credit cards and my phone is loaded with Apple Pay, FavePay and GrabPay… Yet my wallet is constantly stuffed with an awkward roll of $2 bills and a bunch of coins.

Despite the gov’s moderately successful campaign for Singapore to become a “cashless society”, many of us are still fumbling with loose change like it’s 1972. 

In fact, some of us might even resist going totally cashless, because the more financially-savvy among us know that cashless payment methods have their pitfalls too.

Here are 5 reasons why tech- and financially-savvy Singaporeans might still use cash today.


1. We have no choice if we want to continue eating hawker food

I conducted a straw poll among my colleagues at MoneySmart and found that the majority of respondents cited hawker centres as one of the reasons why they still use cash. For some, it’s the only place they still use cash.

Hawker centres are the perfect example of how deeply the cash economy is entrenched in Singapore. Most good hawkers couldn’t care less about newfangled payment methods. You don’t have cash, then don’t eat here lor.

Yes, there may be a big push for hawkers to accept cashless payments, but how many times have you actually successfully paid using the NETS terminal? Most of the time, I get waved away with a brusque “machine not working”.

You simply can’t go without cash if you want to eat good hawker food, and that’s practically every day for many of us.

No choice lah, we still need cash — unless you’re willing to forgo good food for your preferred payment method. (Which would be decidedly un-Singaporean.)

Hawker centres are just one example of the thriving cash economy in Singapore. Other examples of cash-only essential goods and services include part-time cleaners, wet markets and neighbourhood chapalang shops. So as long as these cash-only small businesses exist, we have no choice but to keep some physical currency around.


2. It’s easier to stick to a budget with cash

One of the most obvious benefits of cash is that you can look inside your wallet and definitively say: “I have this much money to spend.”

That physical feedback makes it a lot easier for many of us to stick to a budget. Since the money vanishes before your eyes as you spend it, it’s easy to see how much you’ve spent. 

And if you reach the end of your budget, that’s it. Short of going to an ATM, there’s nothing else you can do to squeeze out more.

Contrast this against swiping your credit card at stores or using FavePay when you dine out. Not only is there virtually no spending limit, there’s also no feedback loop whenever you pay, which makes you not feel like you’re depleting a finite resource. But you are. Oh yes, you are.

Unless you have incredible self-control, or a superhuman awareness of your spending, it’s almost always easier to stick to a budget with cash.

That’s why the envelope method of budgeting still exists. It may seem silly and low-tech in this day and age, but we have it on good authority that it really does work for some of us.


3. Because credit cards can be a huge pain in the ass

“Wait, aren’t these people who use cash missing out on cash rebates or air miles from using credit cards?” you ask. 

That’s right, they are. But they’re also “missing out” on the trouble that comes with owning and using credit cards.

Just to name some common woes: There’s credit card bill shock, surprise late fees because you forgot to pay the bank forgot to send your bill, the ever-looming spectre of unintentional overspending, and the hassle of calling in to waive some blasted fee or other.

Even if you’re totally on top of your credit card spending, it’s extremely annoying to have to deal with banks changing their credit card mechanics willy-nilly.

One month the minimum spend is $600, another month it goes up to $800. Screw that! If the goalposts keep shifting, you might as well stop playing the game.

One colleague told me that he used to own many miles cards and has flown Business Class on miles before, but he’d rather not go through all that again. 

The miles may be technically “free”, but you pay for it with the mental labour of maintaining Excel spreadsheets to track your multi-card strategy, and with the heartache of being 3 cents short of the $5 transaction it takes to earn a UOB UNI$ (ugh).


4. You can’t beat the security and privacy of cash

There’s a reason why you cash is the preferred payment mode of hitmen and drug dealers worldwide; it’s the gold standard when it comes to un-traceability.

There doesn’t need to be a sinister reason to prefer cash. Perhaps you simply want to buy sex toys anonymously, or you think it’s none of anyone’s business that you spent $200 on a bonsai plant.

When you pay with cash, no one — not your mom, not your spouse, not the bank — can see what you’re buying and who you are. 

Credit cards and e-wallets, on the other hand, are linked to your identity. So when you make payment with these cashless methods, there’s always the off-chance that someone is lurking there, squirrelling away your personal data for “marketing purposes”. 

There’s also the possibility of fraud, even with credit card transactions. Just think how easy it is for anyone to copy down your credit card number, expiry date and CVV number whenever you hand it over to pay for drinks. Those 3 data points are pretty much all you need to make transactions online.

Finally, not using credit cards or payment apps also means you won’t have to deal with a whole bunch of administrative hassle if you lose your wallet or phone.


5. It’s way too time-consuming to use apps

Ultimately, the cash economy is really hard to get rid of because — as long as it’s there in your wallet — cash is still extremely convenient.

It takes a few seconds to pull out a $2 note to pay for a coffee, compared to the small eternity it takes to dig up your phone, unlock it, launch your app, log in, scan the QR code, enter the details and finally pay. 

By then, the kopi auntie looks like she wants to kill you because she could have served 5 more customers in the time it took for you to PayLah her.

Plus, there’s no benefit (miles, points or cashback) to paying with PayLah, so it’s really a lose-lose situation.

The process is less painful at places like supermarkets, which typically have better cashless systems in place. But you still have to figure out which bloody terminal is the right one (omg, why on earth is there a separate one for PAssion card!?) and wait for the payment to go through.

Meanwhile, the cashier is drumming her fingers on the counter because her job has been replaced by a bunch of swivelling payment terminals. 

Nah, maybe cash isn’t so bad after all.

Will Singapore go full cashless anytime soon? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.