Two Years living cashless in Central Europe and the UK

A guest blog by: Joël Kai Lenz

Hi there!

My name is Joël Kai Lenz and I’m here to talk to you about my experience on my past 2 years of living without any cash. Before I get started with the article, I need to tell you about my everyday life. Why? Well I feel it is the best way to showcase how I spend money and what type of situations come with it.

I work as a Social Media Manager with different brands across the globe. Some of them are in Central Europe, I currently live in Switzerland, some of them are in the UK and some have resided in the US. Which is great for me, as I get to travel a lot and perfect for you, as I can compare my cashless experience within the UK and Switzerland.

To understand how someone uses a certain product, you have to understand how they live their day to day life. In theory someone who lives in the countryside could easily live cashless as well. He might only leave their home or office for a quick trip to the closest grocery store. But is that the same as someone living in London, who regularly has to spend more? I mean at the end of the day, they both spend money cashless, however I feel that the person in London has many more encounters with real life scenarios to compare to.

My regular day is a mix of different things. That’s the same in London or Bern, the Swiss town I live in. Because I grew up in Switzerland, I’ve always been used to commuting on public transport. That can be trains, buses or even rental bikes. So it doesn’t matter where I am, the ticket to get somewhere is always the first thing I pay in the morning. In Switzerland I do this through the train app and in the UK I tend to just tap and pay with my iPhone.

This is the first comparison between the two countries. In Switzerland you can very rarely pay by Apple Pay. The train app actually is an exemption to that. But try and find a Swiss Bank, which supports it. However, we have different payment options in Switzerland. All of them are cashless as well. Just not as much of a delight as Apple Pay. You have to login and out of so many menus! With Apple Pay it’s just tap and off you go!

Once my ticket is bought, I tend to head out and buy breakfast. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty straight forward process. You get in, order your food and pay. Most places in London let you pay by card only. Which I fully support, obviously! I have my card with me anyways. On the other side in Switzerland, you also get the opportunity to pay by card, but they would like you to pay in cash. It even goes as far, that I often have to tell the waitress ahead that I want to pay by card. Otherwise they roll their eyes, tut and come back with the terminal later on. So if you ever tend to visit Switzerland, make sure to tell them ahead of trying to pay.

By now it’s around 8:30 AM and I need to get started with my work. Because I don’t have to sit in an office and talk to fellow co-workers, I have the privilege of either working from home or sit in a coffee shop. Sometimes I book a day pass at a co-working. Depending on which one I choose, I either pay online or I walk in and pay at the counter. This is pretty much the same in both countries. However most Swiss spaces let you pay cash only. A shame, as most of them have online booking possibilities…

At around 2 PM I usually get pretty hungry and head out for a quick lunch. Where I have an additional tip for some of you who want to visit Switzerland. It’s a pretty small country, therefore kitchens tend to close between 2 and 6 PM. So be aware, if you want to eat later you just have to accept that you can only eat at McDonalds or some Fast Food Chain. The process here is the same as breakfast. Except at lunch most restaurants support cashless payments. They want to get through as many customers as possible. The only thing they don’t support is Apple, Samsung and Google Pay. So make sure to have your debit card with you!

Fully fed, I head back to the office or my apartment. However, I always make sure to stop by a food truck and either get a bubble tea or a coffee to go. That’s where I see the biggest difference between the UK and Switzerland. In the UK most of these food trucks or stands have at least a Sum Up Terminal with them. In Switzerland, they hate you, if you don’t have cash on you! And they even tell you that. I got so used to it, that I just stop by the next Starbucks and get something from there. Too much disgrace to my bank account. As Starbucks is so expensive in Switzerland! Keep that in mind if you visit and crave a cup of coffee!

Once I’m back to work, I tend to not leave my desk again. Either finish my work in the morning, check Twitter regularly for clients – and myself of course – or have some video conferences. Once my work is done, I head out and meet friends or go and attend an event. Which is where I see a big difference between the two countries again. Especially bars and events spaces in Switzerland want you to pay in cash. I’m not saying that you can’t, but there are often special cashiers to only pay by card and those are a total rip off, as they sometimes charge you more than if you pay cash.

I also see this trend with many of my friends in Switzerland. Whenever we go out and drink something, they tend to have their cash ready. Because once the bill comes, we can all chip in and pay our bits. I’m mostly the weirdo sitting there and asking if I can pay by card. Which many of them don’t understand. They find cash more convenient. I mean you could also split the bill with a debit card! Every challenger bank has it built in these days. Well, not in Switzerland!

To sum up this review, I believe there are many places and scenarios in both countries which are the same with cashless. However the general acceptance between both of them is different. I see more and more small businesses in the UK already jumping on the cashless train. Some of these small boutiques or coffeeshops don’t even accept cash.

That’s quite the opposite in Switzerland. Most of them actually only accept cash. They don’t want the customer with debit or credit cards. I blame this on the payment providers. They charge massive fees for transactions with different cards. Sometimes north of 6.5%! And it goes further, as most banks in Switzerland only send out Maestro Cards. Which obviously let you pay cashless, but they’re never functional with all the Mobile Phone solutions and tend to hinder you when shopping online.

Again I’m not saying that this isn’t the case in the UK, however I feel people in Switzerland would feel more comfortable with cashless if there would be more possibilities to actually pay by card with modern technologies. I tried to find a number of how many Apple Pay Terminals are in use and it didn’t show up anything! I believe you could educate people more on the whole mobile banking aspect. Unfortunately many citizens are afraid of modern technology and don’t trust these modern banks either. Funny isn’t it? Shouldn’t we stop trusting these old institutions and start shaping the future with challenger banks?

I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting Switzerland. It will definitely take longer for cashless to fully arrive here as well. But this is ok. Not every city and village in the UK is fully cashless yet. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day either…

This is the summary I pull out of the past two years of living with no cash in my pocket. I reckon, if you want to go down the cashless life, be prepared to sometimes run into a wall. There will be shops which will deny you as a customer. There will be instances where you might end up paying more. Especially in Central Europe. And there will be times, where they accept cashless, but only if it is a credit card. So be prepared!

How do you feel about this? Have you had similar experiences with Central Europe or Switzerland in general? Are there things I have missed? Let me know! Hit me up on Twitter (@joelkailenz) and let’s chat.

I hope I could help you with this review. If you’re around in London or Bern, let me know! We can always grab a coffee and chat about FinTech.

Thanks to Mike as well, for letting me on!

Have the best of days!


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