Is access to cash and cheques about to be finished?

Article published 3 April 2023

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Is access to cash and cheques about to be finished?

The rise of digital payments


It is no secret that digital payments are becoming more widespread. The average Australian made more than double the amount of electronic transactions in 2021-22 compared to 2011-12.

But while some of this increase may be due to personal preference, some of it is also due to banks making it harder to pay any other way.

Between 2017 and 2022 the number of bank branches across Australia has fallen from 5,694 to 4,014 and the number of ATMs has dropped from 13,814 to 6,412.

At the same time the RBA has said it is working with stakeholders to “support the further transition away from cheques”.

It is important to realise that the RBA is not assisting in getting rid of cash. Access to cash is becoming more difficult. Free bank ATMs are disappearing, and fee-for-withdrawal ATMs are becoming more common, but this is not overseen by the RBA.

Without access to cash and cheques as alternative forms of payments it makes sense that more people are using digital payments.

But for many people out there, swapping to digital payments isn’t an option.

Lived experience

CPSA members have written to us to share their concerns.

“I live in regional Victoria, near the NSW border”, wrote one member. “We have a few shopping plazas and each one used to have ATMs from major banks.  So, I now use Coles for cash-outs quite frequently, or I use Woolworths.

“Recently all bank ATMs in the shopping centres have been replaced with the fee-charging ATMs. I find this abhorrent.

“My local bank knows of the situation and says it’s only ATMs attached to the bank branch that still remain.

“Bank closures are occurring quite frequently. Case in point, I went to Melbourne recently, needed some money and wanted to go to an ATM in a large market. But the Westpac branch was no longer there. There is one apparently five or six kilometres away at another shopping centre.” 

Another member writes:

“The general rot with banks appears to be unstoppable. The purpose of the rot is to increase profits at the expense of account holders.

“An example of this is the Commonwealth Bank, which has just one branch in the Southern Highlands NSW, which covers some 2,330 square kilometres and has a population of 52670. Demographically, the number of people over 55 is 42 per cent “(compared with Australia at 29 per cent). A significant proportion could be expected to be impacted by bank branch closures.

“Compounding this situation, is the difficulty in accessing the one branch left, due to lack of public transport, lack of adequate parking, and distance required to travel.

“By way of example, the bank is at Bowral, but I’ve elected to not drive past Mittagong due to age related safety reasons. In my view, that equates to discrimination by the Commonwealth Bank in closing the Mittagong branch.

“The issue of branch closures isn’t of course confined to the Commonwealth Bank”, concludes this member.

CPSA branches’ reliance on cash and cheques

In CPSA branches, as with other small community organisations, cheques are used as the main form of payment. Any spending decisions are decided at branch meetings and two assigned members are then required to sign off on any cheque before it is paid.

Without access to cheques, either because they are being phased out or because there is no way to cash them, branch members will be required to use online banking. This becomes an issue if no one in the group is familiar or comfortable with online banking.

Another issue is that CPSA members make cash payments such as membership fees, payment for branch activities like bus trips and raffles or gold coin donations with cash or sometimes cheques. With limited access to cash, people’s ability to participate in social and community groups is hindered, impacting their overall wellbeing. In CPSA branches, these payments are never made electronically. If there is no bank nearby to allow these payments to be made by cash or cheque, they simply do not happen.

It is vital that face-to-face banking services remain available for anyone who is unable to use online banking or would simply prefer to use physical payment methods rather than cards.

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