We’re all forking over a lot more for our grocery bills these days, but only 6% of Canadians are paying for those groceries exclusively with cash.

Despite the fact most are choosing cashless options (debit/credit cards), results of a new national survey released Thursday suggest a majority (almost three out of four Canadians) still think bills and coins should be a payment option.

That’s because they consider a cashless grocery store discriminatory.

The goal of the survey study, Cashed Out: How a Cashless Economy Impacts Your Grocery Experience, a Canadian Perspective, was to understand what an increasingly cashless experience means for Canadians.

Conducted last month and funded by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab in partnership with Angus Reid, the survey involved 1,503 Canadians who were asked to share their perceptions. 

Among the findings was that 73% of Canadians see grocery stores not accepting cash as a form of discrimination against some consumers.

That number was highest in Quebec (78%) and lowest in Manitoba (67%), while 70% of Atlantic Canadians deemed it discriminatory. 

A graph with seven brightly coloured bars show how each region of the country feels about a cashless society being discriminatory.
From the survey study, Cashed Out: How a Cashless Economy Impacts Your Grocery Experience, a Canadian Perspective. Credit: Dalhousie University/Agri-Food Analytics Lab

Push for cashless

The report stated that in five years, 26% of Canadian grocery stores won’t accept cash.

“There’s certainly a push for a cashless grocery store, but our study shows Canadians expect more of an inclusionary approach when paying for groceries,” Janet Music, research associate at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, said in the report.

The report cites Mintel, which in 2022 found an estimated 6% of Canadian households (1.5 million) were unbanked. This means they had no account at a financial institution. 

In addition, about 15% of Canadian households were considered underbanked. That term describes those who have an account but still use alternative financial services like payday loans or cheque cashing services. 

The report’s authors noted that factors contributing to being unbanked or underbanked include low income, immigration status, and lack of education.

“In a nutshell, a cashless economy could limit access to goods and services for certain individuals and communities, and it could also have negative impacts on privacy and security,” the report noted.

‘Exponential growth of people living in poverty’

Dalhousie University School of Social Work associate director and professor Jeff Karabanow wasn’t involved in the study. But his research interests and areas of expertise include poverty and housing and homelessness. 

Karabanow believes dumping cash completely in favour of cashless options is going to be more difficult and take much longer for vulnerable populations.

In an interview, he said he was “pleasantly surprised” to learn that a majority of survey respondents were “deeply considerate” of the social implications of a shifting economy.

“It’s hard to go to the grocery store these days to pay the prices that we’re paying, which hits everybody, and then to also be walking out and seeing people that are in deep need that are living on the street.” Karabanow said. 

“The fact that we’re wherever we are in the realm of COVID, I think a lot more inequity and injustices have been amplified. But with the economic pressures that everybody’s experiencing, it’s not just amplified. We’re seeing exponential growth of people living in poverty.”

A smiling bearded man wearing a brightly coloured scarf atop a blue shirt and green sweater stands in front of a door smiling.
Dalhousie University School of Social Work associate director and professor Jeff Karabanow. Credit: Dalhousie University

When it comes to newcomers to Canada, Karabanow said while we’ve opened our doors to many, we haven’t yet built all the supports. And there are also other considerations.

“You think about newcomers coming from countries where the banking systems have been deeply flawed and corrupted and people have lost so much in systems that are under civil unrest,” Karabanow said. 

“There’s a different understanding of what cashless and cash-oriented societies can look like.”

‘Some of their survival depends on transfer of cash’

Like the study’s authors, Karabanow said moving towards a cashless society risks further disadvantaging people living in rural communities, those who don’t have familiarity or comfort with the online financial world (including seniors), and those experiencing deep poverty who survive in informal economies. 

“I’ve run into it quite a bit in the past around populations that are experiencing houselessness and homelessness. Some of their survival depends on the transfer of cash, and we definitely saw the impact of that during COVID,” Karabanow said. 

“We’re continuing to see that it creates challenges in the way that folks that are living on the streets exchange, barter, and survive.”

Karabanow said many of the people he works with rarely have all their identification on them. It’s even rarer for them to have bank accounts. 

“I think it’s a good thing that we support folks to have bank accounts and to have identification, and I think most who live on the streets would agree that they want that,” he said.

“But the living environment isn’t that accommodating to making sure that you have all your belongings with you and that you keep them and that you can hold on to them. And so that kind of becomes problematic.”

Only 11% of Atlantic Canadians pay for groceries exclusively with cash

The study’s authors found that debit and credit are the most popular grocery payment methods among Canadians, with only 6% overall still paying exclusively with cash. 

Among provinces where people pay exclusively with cash at the grocery store, Manitoba has the highest percentage (13%), followed by Atlantic Canada (11%). 

A brightly coloured graph of three bars each for seven Canadian regions demonstrating how people pay for groceries–via debit, credit, or cash.
From the survey study, Cashed Out: How a Cashless Economy Impacts Your Grocery Experience, a Canadian Perspective. Credit: Dalhousie University/Agri-Food Analytics Lab

Only 28% of Canadian survey respondents felt that paying with cash helped them track food costs, and just 17% considered cash to be a health threat due to the spread of viruses and germs. 

Cashless payment deemed more convenient

But a majority (53%) considered a cashless economy a threat to their personal privacy, as personal information shared via digital transactions could fall prey to cyber criminals and “wrongdoers.”

“Grocers may also use the data for targeted advertising or other purposes, without the individual’s knowledge or consent,” the report said. 

“Tracking an individual’s online browsing habits, location, and other personal data — which can be used to profile and target them for advertising or other purposes — is also a possibility.”

A majority of Canadians (74%) said not using cash is convenient, while just 27% believed using cash is outdated. 

The representative survey of Canadians was conducted in January 2023. The margin of error was cited as +/- 3.1%, 19 times out of 20. 

*Correction: Dalhousie University’s report mistakenly attributed to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) the statistic that 6% of households were unbanked. This story has been updated to reflect the correction since made in the report, attributing the statistic to Mintel.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Another consideration is, for the “unbanked” and/or “underbanked”, the savings in interest charges of using cash vice putting charges on an interest-laden credit card. Also, the monthly charges on bank accounts for those who have so little are unaffordable – it’s just that most have enough money that these “excessive” charges are not as significant as they are for the poorest amongst us.