I hardly ever carry cash these days. Even the small shops that used to insist on a purchase of more than £5 if a card was used, have now relaxed and they accept a tap from my card for a litre of milk. I know there are grumbles about the closure of banks, but I am glad not to have the worry of remembering to draw out cash or the fear of getting robbed at a street ATM or the pandemic fear of germs on the coins. Now I even know how to tap my phone with Google Wallet, but I won’t do away with a card yet just in case my phone battery gets drained.
A world without cash is a huge leap for humankind. Money, in the sense of tokens that can be exchanged for something else of value, has varied in its material across cultures and epochs: shells, beads, salt. These needed to be counted or weighed in order to make a fair exchange. Then it was realised that this could be done more easily through manufactured metal coins. The earliest known to archaeologists was minted in the Henan province of China in 640 BCE. In Asia minor the King of Lydia, Alyattes, began making coins in metal alloy in 600 BCE with an imprint of a lion which his son, the rich Croesus, improved upon with pure gold coinage. Although a Persian nobleman, Tissaphernes (c 445-395) seems to have been the first to put his own features on a coin, mostly coins in the ancient world featured animals or plants – until Julius Caesar. On the way to grabbing imperial power, he put his own profile on Roman coinage. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” said Jesus in response to a question about paying tax.
Indeed, minting coinage is a way to claim sovereignty. One way in which scholars studying Anglo-Saxon England judge the power of the various kingdoms is by the circulation of the coins they minted. Now, we have the first coins with the profile of King Charles III. But the question is – how long will it remain in circulation? With coins being phased out, the generations to come will not connect money to sovereignty.
I recall teaching my own children about money. They had piggy banks to save real coins, and the monopoly game to play with fake money. At school, I guess they did plenty of arithmetic using coins as visual aids. Pocket money also involved arithmetic, as I increased it with each year of their age, so multiplication. But with coins now disappearing, how are the children of today to learn all this?
I googled – cards for pocket money. There I discovered that the GoHenry card already has over a million subscribers. Almost every bank is now issuing a card for children, advertised as for ages from six to college. They do not have pictures of the sovereign on them, but rather cheery cartoon images of pets, see the Natwest Rooster card. The functions of these cards are many:
- Paying in pocket money regularly from parent’s account
- Parents checking up what they are spending it on
- Helping to save
- Give to charity
- Earn money from chores
And so on. I can see that some of this actually works better than the old money. With a piggy bank, the drawback is the child cannot see how much has been saved until the pig is broken open, though it can be tested by weight and makes a gratifying rattle.
A lot of lessons about money are also packaged up with the app that goes with the card, from level one (mid primary school) through teenage to college years. The Rooster card, which costs £1.99 per month, has various clickable points to help the parents think through how to educate their children about money. In contrast the GoHenry card, costing £3.99 per month, is aimed at helping the children themselves. Their mission statement is:
“We want our kids to be smart with money, understand wants vs needs, create savings habits, make investment decisions, use money to help others, take responsibility and understand when it’s gone, it’s gone. We created GoHenry with the goal of helping kids and teens learn about money in a practical, fun way and provide all the tools to help parents nurture healthy financial habits in their children.”
Parental control is via the app. The parent can see there what the child is spending money on and can control which outlets are allowed for spending. I guess there will soon be more development of apps for the child cardholder too. I hope this will be confined to useful apps helping them to see how much they are spending or saving. We need to guard against attempts to monetise this with adverts or influencers.
I wonder how these cards work internationally. I was pleasantly surprised recently to see that I could use my Triodos debit card on Brussels trams, whereas ten years ago it was only my credit card that was useful, for drawing cash from the ATMs with which I had to buy a ticket. If these apps work internationally, and function also from a phone like Google Wallet, then shoppers will barely notice which countries they are spending in. Of course, exchange rates may still persist, while different nations have to organise their own currencies.
But the symbolism of the sovereign on the coin is gone, as even coins themselves will be visible only as an antique curiosity in museums.