Life

We Asked People at an ATM: Why Are You Getting Cash Out?

Drugs? A haircut? Coffee? In an increasingly cashless society, the answers are not what you think.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
JL
photos by Jake Lewis
June 30, 2021, 8:15am
Does anyone use cash anymore?
Photos: Jake Lewis

Keeping cash in your wallet has almost become as outdated as lugging around pens and a chequebook. So bye-bye, and welcome to the future.

According to a new report from trade body UK Finance, the amount of people living almost totally cash-free nearly doubled over the last year, with cash accounting for less than a fifth of all payments, making it less popular than it has ever been.

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On the one hand, the reasons for this are fairly straightforward. The pandemic has pushed businesses and consumers to ditch cash in favour of ultra-sleek card payments and annoying-to-download service apps. But even before the panny-dee shook up our livelihoods, cash was headed out.

Like bleach blonde buzzcuts on men, paying with notes or coins has been falling in popularity since 2017, with use dropping 15 percent year-on-year, according to UK Finance. Coronavirus simply sped the dramatic decline up.

So, in a world that mostly allows contactless payments for everything – with some places only accepting card – what are people withdrawing for?

To find out, I decided to conduct an “experiment” by standing around near cash machines in London and asking people what they were there for.

To keep things scientific, we would stay at no cash point for longer than 30 minutes and if no one came through for ten minutes, we’d leave.

Here we go.

11AM, Shoreditch

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Our journey began outside Shoreditch high street’s infamous Tesco location. During pre-COVID times, this cashpoint’s queue snaked sporadically across the pavement, pissing off anyone trying to walk past.

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Today, however, it’s just a lonely bit of concrete, baking in Routemaster bus fumes, with a battered cash point no one cares for. It takes eight minutes for us – myself, and photographer Jake Lewis – to catch our first bite.

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It’s a wild Ali, age 49! I ask what he’s doing with the pounds he’s taking out.

“My car is broken down and the driver is going to be asking for cash,” he says. “But I’m not keeping cash on me otherwise. No shops accept cash. Even inside Tesco, all the [self-service] machines – they only take card.” He grins for the camera: “Cash is king.”

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And then: nothing. One man in his best shagging years goes in and out of Tesco four times in the space of ten minutes. Another deep-throats a chocolate bar, moments after reaching the exit. Still no cash though.

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Down the road and toward London’s banking district, there’s a wealth of sad-looking ATM machines begging for someone to take cash from them.

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Across the road from the ATM outside the office licence, a cash machine is built into the local barber’s shopfront. Directly between these two, there’s also what’s below: a classic phone box repurposed into a money machine.

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Perfect for any Shoreditch party-goer whose “guy” has arrived far quicker than they thought, but rubbish for anyone who doesn’t want to pay a 20 percent fee of £2 just to withdraw a tenner. In the half hour we’re here, no one uses any of these machines. Hardly surprising considering they all charge loads.

12:30PM, Liverpool Street

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Ah, yes – London’s financial district. Surely there’ll be plenty of cash-fiends here? I do a quick rap squat for good luck, then camp between Natwest and Santander.

Pretty quickly, some action arrives. I kindly pop the question while keeping my distance: “Please, can you tell me why you’re withdrawing money?”

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“I’ve got a takeaway, and they only take cash”, says Santo, 53, who wants a Chinese takeaway for lunch. Then comes another guy, paying a friend to buy tools from Amazon. And one more: a City boy, in a royal blue gilet and shit jeans.

“Can I ask what you’re withdrawing money for,” I ask, as he pulls out a thick wad.

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He gives me a sly, knowing grin. “Ah, s'alright mate." Then he’s gone.

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Up the road at Metro Bank, are more empty machines, more drama.

I spot a suited man pressing some buttons and start my spiel about covering people using cash during coronavirus.

“Oh no no no no no, it’s just some cash for my daughter,” he says, and speeds into the distance. But sir, I didn’t even accuse you of doing anything?

1:30PM, Holborn

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By the time we arrive in what’s been dubbed “Midtown” by estate agents, but is just the boring bit near Holborn, we’ve seen around ten people using cash points over two and a half hours. Weirdly, all are men – no women. Also, not surprisingly, many people don’t want to talk or have a photo taken.

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Outside Holborn Sainsbury’s, we run into Nino, who says he has an "exclusive" for us. Why are you taking money out, I ask? "I'll tell you why," he says, and produces a newspaper from his bag. "That's yours. Take a look".

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Confused, but unable to stop Nino talking, we hear about “banks banning Trump”, his council tax bill, how supermarket loyalty cards are connected to bank accounts, and how this means our payments are tracked. “It’s paranoia, basically,” he says, for the reason he’s taking cash out. No shit bro.

2:30PM, Leicester Square

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Up through Soho, down Chinatown and into Leicester Square, we’re now desperate to find people withdrawing cash. Here is the M&Ms-fuelled heart of the economy, where cash speaks volumes, paying for everything from the casino to little tourist bikes – yet there’s hardly a cash machine here.

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In fact, nearly all of the very few cash machines we find are out of service.

Finally, on Charing Cross Road, just off Leicester Square, we find someone.

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Annabel, 16, is outside a Barclays, using their only working cash machine of the six they have outside.

“Oh – I was just checking my balance – not trying to get cash,” she says. But what about the banking app? “My 4G isn’t working at the moment.” Damn.

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The fact that young people are only using cash machines when their internet banking app is broken is an extremely sad diss toward the ATMs. But surely there must be someone around here still using cash in 2021?

As we head toward Covent Garden in search of more money-users, we come across the below sign.

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At last, someone in this vicinity using good old cash! Time to investigate.

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I lean in, for a closer look…

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Wingardium levi-OH-sa. It’s just a museum featuring notes emblazoned with young Ronald Weasley’s face. FFS. How long until sterling notes reach the same fate as these high-profile wizards and witches on display here?

4PM, Waterloo

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By the time we reach Waterloo, we’re tired. Have you ever walked from Shoreditch to Waterloo? My back aches and the mission is still ongoing.

We post up on a street where there’s an ATM outside a post office and another in front of a Sainsbury’s. Two classic cash withdrawal spots, not too far from one of London’s most popular train stations. Quickly enough, a stream of people trickle up to the Sainsbury’s ATM (no one uses the posties).

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The first two people refuse to talk and scurry away before we can barely get our words out. The third guys says he likes cash because he’s “old school like that”, but also refuses to chat for longer or have his photograph taken. The fourth – Shardae, 16 – is taking out cash to get her nails done and also declines a photograph. Finally, as our half hour at the cash point approaches its end, a fifth guy in his late twenties approaches and takes out a huge wedge.

“Excuse me, can I ask what you’re taking that out for?” I say.

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He responds: “No reason.”

4:45PM, Waterloo Bridge

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Cash in this city, it seems, has become a secret. Like many things hidden away about the financial district in the distance, cash operates in the shadows. Is cash the cryptocurrency of the past, in that it can’t be traced?

For people who use cash to avoid being tracked, like Nino, that’s true. Others we spoke to simply refused to tell us what they were using cash for.

In either case, in the five or so hours we spent traipsing around London in search of people withdrawing cash, we ran into far less than one might expect. So, god bless Hard-Fi and their annoying debut tune “Cash Machine”. That era is almost close to closing, and it’s time to head home.

Sayonara, scientific experiment. Cashless is the new leader here now.

@ryanbassil / @jake_photo