If your wallet is empty, you're part of the new majority

Open your purse or wallet. If it's empty, apart from cards, you're part of something big.

For the first time, cards account for more of our purchases than cash. Whether its payWave or myki or Opal or MyWay for the small things, or Visa, MasterCard and debit cards for the big ones, we are using cards more often than ever before and taking less cash out of ATMs than at any time in the past 15 years.

Often I have not a single piece of cash on me (much to my children's annoyance).

A new Reserve Bank report released on Thursday finds that an astonishing one-fifth of Australians carried no cash whatsoever on the day they were surveyed, up from 8 per cent three years before.

The typical amount carried fell from $55 to $40.

The typical amount secreted away around the home (such as in bedrooms and under fruit bowls) is $100.

An astounding 30 per cent of us keep no cash whatsoever in the house, up from 25 per cent three years ago.

If nothing else, it suggests incredible faith in banks.

The Reserve Bank carries out the survey every three years. In November it gave 1500 people diaries and asked them to record every transaction for a week, more than 17000 transactions in total. In a telling irony it rewarded them with gift cards rather than cash.

Only one-third of the transactions were in cash, down from two-thirds in 2007. The use of cards jumped from one-quarter to 52 per cent, supercharged by a surge in the use of contactless payments for amounts under $20.

Only for payments of less than $10 did cash still hold its own, and predominantly among older and poorer Australians.

The said they used it because it was cheaper (no surcharges) and easier to budget with because it could be seen. Some said they were concerned about privacy and fraud, but not many.

Soon many of them will be abandoning cash. Smartphone payments (made by waving phones instead of cards) accounted for only 1 per cent of transactions in November, but they are about to get big.

For people like us. Different Reserve Bank statistics suggest there's another (smaller) class of people for whom cash is almost everything and becoming even more. The use of $100 notes jumped 9 per cent in the past year, well above the long-term growth rate of 7 per cent.

There are now an extraordinary 12 $100 notes per person in circulation, twice as many as the more widely-seen $20 notes. The Bank knows this because it pumps them out. In an attempted explanation, its annual report limply says they are "used as a store of wealth".

But not by people like you or me.

A raid on the home of the now-jailed NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid found $30,000 in cash. There are more Obeids around, and their wallets are anything but empty.

Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.

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The story If your wallet is empty, you're part of the new majority first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.