Although people often think that paying in cash is free, it actually costs Americans some $200 billion a year -- or an average of roughly $1,700 per household, according to a new study by Tufts University in suburban Boston.
The biggest portion of the cost -- about $100 billion -- is borne by the federal government, which pays about $1.2 billion producing and distributing cash, with the rest attributed to losses from foregone tax revenue from cash transactions, the study said.
Cash costs businesses about $55 billion a year, according to the study, with the largest chunks being $40 billion from theft of cash at retail stores and $6 billion for automated teller machine operations.
The cost to consumers is estimated at $43 billion annually. The largest expense -- about $31 billion -- is attributed to the time and money that people spend making trips to access cash, such as to a bank, ATM or check-cashing store. Consumers spend an average of 28 minutes per month traveling to get cash, the study said.
Other expenses include $5 billion in periodic account fees (including fees on deposit accounts and prepaid cards used to avoid holding large amounts of cash) and $6 billion in ATM transaction fees at machines not owned by an account holder's bank.
Currency is one of the last hold-outs in the transition from paper to electronic payments, but despite its connection with bygone times, cash isn't ready to be displaced, according to the study, "The Cost of Cash in the United States."
The study cited some of the reasons for cash's staying power, ranging from force of habit, universal acceptance and the anonymity it offers by bearing no record of the user's identity.
"This is a digital transformation that will happen more slowly than what transpired in the case of roll film or recorded music," the study's authors wrote. "Something or someone would have to ensure that when an e-dollar entered one person's wallet, it also left the wallet of some other person. An e-dollar shouldn't be allowed to be in two places at once, but there are very few examples of such technology in the world."
A separate study by Payments Journal estimated cash payment volume in the U.S. would decline at a rate of just 2 percent per year.
"The issue of cash displacement will require a concerted effort across all stakeholders," Payments Journal wrote. At a disappearance rate of 2 percent per year, "We'll have plenty of time to work on it."
The Tufts study also said:
• Most people carry only small amounts of cash, typically less than $100.
• Men typically carry double the amount of cash and use about 50 percent more cash per month than women.
• Women hold about $30 less than men, while African Americans hold about $40 more than other groups.
• Youth (under 25) carry substantially less cash than seniors (over 65) at every income level.
• Poor Americans without access to banks carry larger amounts of cash and pay the most fees to access cash.
• Older retirees are 2.5 times less likely to pay for access to cash, given their preference for banking with a teller.
• Approximately 80 percent of ATM transactions are cash withdrawals.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.