Cash or Code? CBDCs vs. Physical Money

Cash or Code? CBDCs vs. Physical Money

“We live in a digital world, but we’re fairly analog creatures” ― Omar Ahmad

3 min read

Cash or Code? CBDCs vs. Physical Money

“We live in a digital world, but we’re fairly analog creatures” ― Omar Ahmad

3 min read

Conversations about how we spend our money are centreing more and more around the debate between physical money (cash) and Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs). As the world hurtles towards a digital future, with digital payment methods and cryptocurrencies becoming increasingly prominent, it’s essential to understand the fundamental differences between CBDCs and physical cash.

Is one better than the other? What are the implications of adopting a system such as CBDC? Will cash have a part to play in the future? We will tell you all this and more right here in this article. So, put your bank notes in your wallet and coins back in your pocket because this article is free for you to read.

A World Before Digital Money

Cash, in its most fundamental form, represents physical currency that includes banknotes and coins issued and regulated by a country’s central bank or government. These tangible representations of value are universally recognised as a medium of exchange (‘legal tender’) in everyday transactions. Cash serves as a readily accepted means of payment, and its usage dates back centuries, reflecting the historical evolution of trade and finance.

One of the key characteristics of cash is its wide acceptance across various economic transactions. From buying groceries at a local shop to paying for goods and services, cash offers immediacy and simplicity in facilitating trade. It doesn’t rely on complex financial infrastructure or digital technology, making it accessible to individuals regardless of their economic background. Despite the digitalisation of modern finance, cash remains a vital component of our economy, providing a sense of security and financial autonomy to those who prefer physical currency.

Pixels For Sale

A Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) is essentially a digital version of a country’s national currency, and it’s issued and regulated by its central bank. Unlike cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, CBDCs are centralised, meaning they are fully controlled and regulated by the government and the central bank. They serve as a digital representation of physical cash, designed to provide a secure and efficient means of conducting financial transactions in the digital age.

CBDCs can exist in two main forms:

  1. Retail CBDCs: These are digital currencies accessible to the general public, including individuals and businesses. People can hold retail CBDCs directly in their digital wallets, similar to having digital banknotes that they can use for everyday transactions.

  2. Wholesale CBDCs: These are primarily designed for financial institutions, such as banks and other large-scale financial entities. Wholesale CBDCs are often used for interbank transactions, settlements, and other large financial activities that require a high level of efficiency and security.

The introduction of CBDCs aims to combine the convenience of digital payments with the stability and security of traditional central bank-backed currencies. It offers a way to modernize and streamline financial systems, making transactions quicker and more efficient while maintaining the backing and regulatory oversight of a central authority.

CBDCs Advantages and Disadvantages

Believe it or not, there are both upsides and downsides to using CBDCs. Some of the advantages are as follows:

  1. Efficiency: Transactions involving CBDCs are swift and efficient. They can significantly reduce the time and costs associated with cross-border payments, as well as streamline domestic transactions. This efficiency can benefit individuals and businesses alike, making financial interactions smoother.

  2. Reduced Fraud: The digital nature of CBDCs makes them highly resistant to counterfeiting and fraud. Every transaction is recorded in a supposedly ‘tamper-proof’ ledger, enhancing the security and integrity of the financial system. This reduced risk of fraud can lead to greater trust in the currency.

  3. Financial Innovation: CBDCs can serve as a platform for financial innovation. They enable programmable money, allowing for the automation of various financial processes and the development of smart contracts. This can lead to the creation of new financial products and services.
  4. Transparency: CBDC transactions are recorded on a public ledger, ensuring transparency and traceability. This can help reduce corruption and illicit financial activities, contributing to a more accountable financial ecosystem.
  5. Cross-Border Transactions: CBDCs can simplify cross-border transactions by eliminating the need for multiple currency conversions and intermediaries. This can reduce transaction costs and the time required for international trade and remittances.

On the other side of the coin (or code…), some disadvantages are as follows:

  1. Privacy Concerns: One of the primary concerns surrounding CBDCs is the potential erosion of financial privacy. Unlike physical cash, CBDC transactions are recorded on a public ledger, making them traceable. This transparency raises concerns about the surveillance of financial activities by governments or institutions, potentially compromising individuals’ privacy.
  2. Cybersecurity Risks: CBDCs are inherently digital, which makes them susceptible to cyberattacks. Hacking attempts and security breaches can result in the loss of funds and sensitive financial data. Ensuring robust cybersecurity measures is crucial to safeguard CBDCs against threats. Though some believe it is not possible to have a system that is 100% secure at all times.
  3. Financial Stability: The widespread adoption of CBDCs could have unintended consequences for the traditional banking system. If individuals and businesses prefer holding CBDCs directly with the central bank, it may lead to a reduction in deposits held by commercial banks. This shift can impact banks’ ability to lend and manage liquidity, potentially affecting overall financial stability.
  4. Digital Divide: Whilst CBDCs aim to promote financial inclusion, their effectiveness in bridging the digital divide is not guaranteed. Access to digital devices, understanding of the digital world and a reliable internet connection remains a barrier for many individuals, preventing them from fully benefiting from CBDCs.
  5. Dependency on Technology: CBDCs rely heavily on technology infrastructure. System failures, technical glitches, or power outages could disrupt access to funds and financial services, potentially causing inconvenience and financial hardship for users.

Pros and Cons of Cash

Cash, in the form of physical currency, has long been a staple of daily transactions. Whilst digital payment methods and Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) are gaining prominence, cash still offers several advantages, making it relevant in today’s financial landscape:

  1. Anonymity and Privacy: Cash transactions provide a high level of privacy. When you use cash, there is no electronic record of the transaction, which can help protect your financial privacy. This anonymity can be crucial for individuals who value discretion in their transactions.

  2. Universal Acceptance: Cash is universally accepted, making it a reliable form of payment across various businesses and locations, including those that might not accept digital payments or cards. However, you may find an establishment that no longer accepts cash, so be sure to double check accepted payment methods before engaging in their services or buying their goods.

  3. Tangibility: Physical cash is tangible, allowing you to physically see and count your money. This tangible aspect can help with budgeting and financial awareness, as you have a clear sense of how much money you have at any given time.

  4. No Dependence on Technology: Cash transactions do not rely on technology or an internet connection. This means you can use cash even in areas with limited access to digital infrastructure, during power outages, or when electronic payment systems are down.

  5. Immediate Settlement: Cash transactions are settled instantly. When you make a cash payment, there’s no need to wait for authorizations, confirmations, or bank processing times. This immediacy can be especially valuable in situations where speed is essential.

However, on the other side of this real coin, the disadvantages are as follows:

  1. Security Risks: Cash can be lost or stolen easily. If your wallet is misplaced or stolen, the cash inside is typically irretrievable. This poses a significant security risk, especially in crowded or high-crime areas.
  2. Inconvenience: Handling cash can be inconvenient, especially for large transactions. Counting, sorting, and carrying large sums of cash can be cumbersome and time-consuming.
  3. Risk of Counterfeiting: Cash is susceptible to counterfeiting, with counterfeit currency occasionally making its way into circulation. Detecting counterfeit bills can be difficult for the average person.
  4. Limited Accessibility: Access to cash can be restricted in remote or underserved areas, where ATMs and banking infrastructure may be scarce. This limitation can hinder financial inclusion for individuals in these regions.
  5. Unsanitary Handling: Physical currency can carry germs and pathogens due to frequent handling. Especially in times of health concerns, like pandemics, the use of cash may be discouraged for hygiene reasons.

Who Dares Wins

Now you know the advantages and disadvantages of both CBDCs and physical money (cash), which do you think wins? Is there a place for both to function alongside eachother into the future? Or, will we see cash phased out over time? Only time will tell.

Cash is here to stay for the near-future, and it appears that the best one for you is down to personal preference. However, if you want to learn more about how to future-proof your funds, make sure to get in touch with Patterson Mills today and book your initial, no-cost and no-obligation meeting. Just send us an e-mail to or call us direct at +41 21 801 36 84 and we shall be pleased to assist you.

Please note that all information within this article has been prepared for informational purposes only. This article does not constitute financial, legal or tax advice. Always ensure you speak to a regulated Financial Adviser before making any financial decisions.