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1 in 3 Americans Can’t Make a $20 Cash Purchase Without Using an ATM

Written by Lauren Perez | Published on 8/20/2019

Do you carry cash? Are you carrying cash right now? If you had to make a cash purchase, would you need to make a quick trip to the ATM? If you answered no to the first two questions and yes to the last, you’re hardly alone.

The rise of fintech start-ups, electronic payment apps and online banking — not to mention the ubiquity of credit cards and debit cards — has made it possible for many Americans to go without carrying cash most of the time. And many observers speculate that a cashless society could become a reality sooner rather than later.

In this DepositAccounts survey, we have taken a closer look at how many people are living a cashless lifestyle and explored the reasons people forego carrying cash.

Key findings:

  • Approximately 22% of survey respondents said they were not carrying any cash when we spoke to them. Not surprisingly, the younger the respondent, the less likely they are to have cash — 35% of the youngest respondents did not have any cash on them.
  • About 1 in 3 respondents wouldn’t be able to make a $20 cash purchase without going to an ATM first. Around 33% of the people we surveyed said they withdraw cash a few times a month, 21% responded they withdraw cash once a week or more, and another 21% get cash once a month. Meanwhile, 11% withdraw cash once every few months, and 14% withdraw cash even less often than that
  • Approximately 67% of Americans have been caught in a situation where they regretted not carrying cash, and nearly 6 in 10 have been in an emergency situation where they needed cash but did not have any. Millennials and members of Gen X were most likely to have been in a situation where they regretted not carrying cash. Members of Gen X are also most likely to have been in an emergency situation where they needed cash.
  • Nearly 55% said they are frustrated when a business only accepts cash payments. Millennials are generally most likely to feel this frustration.

Here’s why Americans carry cash

According to our survey, the majority of Americans who carry cash do so to be prepared for an emergency. The next most popular response indicated that respondents keep cash on their person in order to pay for small purchases.

Only 25% responded that they actually prefer using cash, while 38% used cash out of necessity, due to cash-only services or a store’s card reader being down.

How much cash do Americans typically carry?

Our survey shows that when people do admit to carrying cash regularly, the amounts they have on them are relatively small: 32% say they carry $1 to $20, while 26% say they carry $21 to $49.

DepositAccounts' founder Ken Tumin says he’s somewhere in the middle. “Even though I use credit cards for most of my purchases, I still carry more than $20,” he says. “I like the idea of having cash as a backup form of payment.”

Interestingly, of those surveyed only 7% said they never made purchases with cash, while 6% said they always made purchases with cash. A little more than half of respondents conceded that they use cash to make purchases sometimes.

Why don’t Americans carry cash?

Most Americans don’t carry cash simply because they prefer paying with card.

“I think many people, especially the younger generation, much prefer the safety and convenience of debit and credit cards versus cash,” says Tumin. Cards offer some protection through security features and the chance for cancellation in case your wallet is lost or stolen, for example. After all, once cash is lost or stolen, it’s gone.

As for convenience, cards are much faster to use at checkout, requiring only a quick tap or swipe nowadays. Indeed, you can see that 33% cited taking out cash as being a hassle as a reason for not wanting to carry cash.

And while Tumin carries both his cards and cash, just in case, he recognizes that many others don’t seem to have the same concern as him. “Perhaps knowing that they can get the cash from an ATM is enough of a backup for some folks,” he says.

Another angle is that credit cards can offer rewards. When asked if they avoid paying with cash because they want to earn credit card rewards, 34% of respondents agreed. Tumin finds that because of these often lucrative rewards, even many older people will use debit cards and credit cards instead of cash for most of their purchases due to the financial advantages.

ATM fees are another barrier to using cash: 1 in 3 respondents said they avoid cash because of the ATM fees associated with withdrawing cash. Millennials are significantly more likely to exhibit this behavior (41%), unlike those aged 73 and over, or the silent generation, who are least likely (17%).

If you tend to fall into the ATM trap, know that one way to get around ATM fees is by staying in-network. Often, this means using only your bank’s ATMs, which you can often locate on your bank’s app. Sometimes, banks provide customers with access to a partner ATM network, like Allpoint, which is often the case with online-only banks.

Can we do away with cash completely?

Cash still continues to be the most frequently used means of payment, according to 2018 data from the San Francisco Fed, accounting for 30% of all transactions of any size. When the San Francisco Fed looked at transactions under $10, cash was used in 55% of transactions.

The San Francisco Fed’s research looked only at the consumer side of the equation, however. A 2017 poll by 451 Research firm for payments solution developer Adyen found that 78% of retail executives were considering cashless stores that would accept only cards and digital payment methods. Certainly, we’ve already begun to see the rise of several restaurant groups, retailers and building management companies make the switch to cashless operations, citing safety, efficiency and convenience.

These developments have generated something of a backlash from consumers and municipal governments. Cashless establishments would exclude around 6.5% of the U.S. population — or 8.4 million U.S. households — who are unbanked, meaning they do not have a bank account, according to the FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households. To tackle this issue, cities including Philadelphia and San Francisco and states like New Jersey and Massachusetts have passed legislation banning cashless stores, with other cities like New York City are not far behind.


DepositAccounts by LendingTree commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,019 Americans, with the sample base proportioned to represent the general population. The survey was fielded July 8-12, 2019. For the purposes of our survey, generations are defined as follows: Members of Gen Z are currently between the ages of 18 to 21, millennials are currently between the ages of 22 and 37, Gen X is between the ages of 38 to 53, baby boomers are 54 to 72, and members of the silent generation are 73 and older.

Related Pages: banking tools and data
Previous Comments
  |     |   Comment #1
I carry cash since a few gas stations where I live give discounts for using cash.
deplorable 1
  |     |   Comment #3
I don't carry much cash($20 max) because I use cash back credit cards for 99.9% of all my purchases. When you use cash you are losing out on 2-5% cash back on every purchase. If I do need cash I have a Bank of America checking account and there is a large ATM network so one is always close by if needed.
  |     |   Comment #21
assuming you don't ever carry a balance that works. but you have to stay diligent and ensure you pay in full - CC companies are banking on people either forgetting to pay their bill or due to cash crunch are unable to pay in full, then their 18%+ interest rates kick in and they are happy as clams.
deplorable 1
  |     |   Comment #29
Sure I carry a balance............right up to the payment due date. ;)
  |     |   Comment #37
I'm the same way deplorable 1, and I actually just started CC churning this year. heck I try to use samsung pay for everything. I just need some cash for the produce stand that's seasonal, too good of a deal to pass up.
  |     |   Comment #5
I charge any purchases I can. However many stores (2 that I use) charge 3.99% more if you use a credit card. They sometimes refer to it as a convenience charge
  |     |   Comment #24
That's a disturbing trend. I think most states allow the stores to do that now, but most stores are still not doing it. I've never seen it in my area even though it's legal here. I'm afraid it may be coming as a trend.
deplorable 1
  |     |   Comment #26
I have seen this charge before and will not do business with any merchant who does this unless I have no other choice. They usually charge more than the credit card companies charge them in order to profit off the fee.
  |     |   Comment #6
I adore credit cards and almost never use cash.
However, I always carry 50.00 or more in my purse. Just in case of an emergency.

When i travel out of state by car, I always bring 500.00 or so. In the event of a speeding ticket (not all states let you pay by credit card).
  |     |   Comment #9
I rarely have $20 or more in my wallet. I have a few hundred in cash at home all the time. Do not use ATMs. Last time I did, for a deposit, I drove off without it giving my card back. So the credit union automatically destroyed it and wanted $5 for a replacement card. I said no thanks.

I carry my RCA debit card but have never used it for a cash advance and it may not even be set up for one. One of my money market accounts said I had to set the pin at an ATM but when I tried, it would not let me so I never tried again. And do not carry the card.
In my state, I think its against the law for gas stations to give cash discounts. One place changed ownership and their sign said they did...for a week or two. I am sure some bureaucrat made them stop.
  |     |   Comment #12
I thought I was the only one the doesn't use ATMs.
  |     |   Comment #20
One time a few years ago I went to my nephews high school basketball game. It was $5 cash to get in. I only had $3 and a flip phone. I asked the kid if I could bring him the $2 back and let him hold my flip phone as collateral. He laughed that it might not be worth $2 but let me do it. I went and borrowed the $2 from his mom and retrieved my phone.
  |     |   Comment #25
I don't think I've used an ATM in 20 years. And probably only once or twice in my life. Cash sucks. It's a dinosaur. This is 2019. Shouldn't even have credit cards anymore. Put your hand on the reader, biometric ID and it automatically deducts the money from your account. You don't have to carry anyting.
  |     |   Comment #44
I carry little cash and use ATMs for cash and to deposit checks Chase branch right down the block from me. Rarely go inside unless I need a signature guarantee.

The new Chase braches have no tellers. They have ATMs inside the bank that you use for deposits and withdrawals. They are converting others to the new format. They have CSRs that will help if needed. Just like self checkouts. I'm sure we'll hear from people that bring jars of coins to the bank :)

I use credit cards for most purchases to get cash rewards. Pay the balance each month.
  |     |   Comment #10
Bret Maverick always kept a $1000 bill pinned to the inside of his suit coat. There is a lesson there someplace. :-)
  |     |   Comment #22
"Maverick is the name.
Ridin' the trail to who knows where,
Luck is his companion,
Gamblin' is his game."

I wonder who made change for that $1000 bill?
  |     |   Comment #13
If you like to live incognito and not being traced by the big brother, cash is your friend and protector. Every time you use your CC all the info is sent to a central computer at IRS too, if your purchases + mortgage + transportation costs comes close or above the income reported, you are audited 100% of the times.
  |     |   Comment #16
That must be a giant computer.
  |     |   Comment #18
I only spend a portion of my income and even if an IRS worker was looking at me, it would not at all look abnormal and I have never been audited. The chances of being audited are low for most people.

I am not forgoing 2-5% cashback because of a minuscule chance of being audited.

That said, I do use prepaid gift cards for many everyday purchases. I buy at a discount or when I had to meet a spend requirement for a credit card bonus.

I prepay my power bill every 4-5 months or so. $2 fee for $600. (12.04 cashback earned so a $10.04 nontaxable gain) That exceeds what I would earn in a savings account and I like not having to pay every month.
  |     |   Comment #19
I'm fairly sure IRS doesn't have that info, and even if they did, you could argue that you were 'paying for a group of friends' and got reimbursed from them later.
  |     |   Comment #28
I spent a portion of my career in the banking industry. The IRS does have broad powers to collect data about you, but they still have to have a warrant in most cases for anything that's not routine. Unless you've been flagged for possible tax problems they do not routinely collect data about your credit card transactions. That wouldn't make sense since the vast majority of taxpayers pay what they're supposed to pay the cost of that kind of database would be higher than the return. There are much more cost effective ways recover taxes.
  |     |   Comment #31
It's called the DIF score.
  |     |   Comment #34
I read up on the DIF and it did not scare me whatsoever. But I did find out about and sign up for free credit karma audit defense. Quick & easy. Although they apparently get a copy of my tax return. Between CK and Mint, they know everything there is to know about me. Except maybe my day to day blood pressure.

Might as well switch to one of them to do my taxes next year. I have been using a cheap place... $15.90 a year for both.
  |     |   Comment #50
Just send Captain Kirk to have a conversation with that computer. Problem solved. ;)
  |     |   Comment #14
As others have said, I carry a moderate amount of cash for emergencies, or for cash-only places, or if power to ATM's and credir card transactions is down.

But not too much cash because of the chance of being robbed.
  |     |   Comment #15
The only time I use ATM's is when i am out of the country. As soon as I arrive, I take out some local currency. The exchange rates are typically better at the ATM's.
  |     |   Comment #17
I carry about $50-$100 cash most of the time for smaller purchases. I don't like using CC for lots of small purchases (less than $5 or so), because I'm one of these rare people that actually double-checks their statement for any wayward charges, so having lots of transactions makes it harder to check. Sometimes the payment networks go down or you can get a cash discount so it's good to have cash in those situations

Note that japan is very cash-centric - many shops and restaurants don't even accept plastic of any sort,
  |     |   Comment #23
they dont use cash because they dont have any ,they spend more than they earn
deplorable 1
  |     |   Comment #30
One thing is that if you don't want to carry much cash around like me you need to have a account with a large free ATM network or you will be hit with out of network fees. Some people laugh because it's only a couple of bucks but when you look at what it could cost you to take out a small amount it's nothing to laugh at. Say you need a quick $20 and you go to a out of network ATM you could be hit with a $2.50 fee from your bank and another $2.50 from the ATM totaling $5. You just paid 25% of your $20 in fees.
  |     |   Comment #35
I haven't used cash in more than a year, but I always carry more than $20 on me when I leave the house.
  |     |   Comment #42
That $20 bill must be getting pretty ragged by now....
  |     |   Comment #45
I keep the cash in my wallet and never remove it, so it's fine.
  |     |   Comment #36
I carry about $50 in cash but I always reach for my CC for all purchases since I do not carry a CC balance and just go for the rewards/perks. If you spend the cash you forfeit those rewards, so might as well get something for that purchase.

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