Paper or Plastic? The Definitive List of Cash Versus Credit Card Spending Statistics

Written By
Julija A.
Updated
October 18,2022

Just like so many aspects of life in the 21st century, physical money is slowly giving way to a digital replacement. And while mobile payments are most popular in increasingly cashless societies like Sweden and Norway, Americans still prefer plastic. “Cash or credit?” is still the most common question asked by a waiter at the end of a meal in the US, even though those smartphones resting on the table could do the job just as well.

Cash is the most popular payment method for face-to-face transactions and cheap, everyday purchases. It is still used in most transactions, but the value of those transactions is low. On the other hand, credit and debit cards are used for 60% of $10-$100 transactions. The biggest value is reserved for electronic payment methods, which cover major expenses like bills and mortgage payments.

We should keep in mind, though, that cash usage still makes up a significant part of America’s GDP: 12.7%, to be exact. At the same time, according to the credit card usage data from the PYMNTS Global Cash Index, credit cards are used by nearly 90% of Americans at least sometimes.

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Editor’s Choice:

  • Americans carried an average of $67 in cash on them in 2021.
  • Cash accounted for just 19% of all payments in the US during 2020.
  • 30% - the volume share of cash transactions.
  • $1 trillion - the revolving debt milestone US consumers have already surpassed.
  • $6,198 - the average credit card debt for American consumers.

No clear winner can be declared on the basis of available data; cash is widely used, but other methods of payment are rising in popularity. We’re still in the midst of a transitional period, and the outcome is difficult to predict. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of payment method statistics from the most relevant resources, focusing on the cash vs. credit card stand-off.

(US Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

According to cash vs. credit card spending statistics from 2017, cash is still king, although its share is declining every year, from 33% of all payments in 2015 to 30% in 2017. Americans make an average of 41 payments per month, 12.4 of which they make with cash.

Credit card usage, on the other hand, increased by 3% in 2017 (from 18% in 2016 to 21% in 2017). Debit cards trail closely behind cash, making up 27% of all payments in the US. 

US consumers spent $2.36 trillion in cash in 2015.

(PYMNTS.com)

Credit card vs. cash statistics from the Global Cash Index published by PYMNTS in 2018 show that speculations about the “death of cash” as a form of payment in the US are greatly exaggerated. The world's largest economy still relies heavily on cash, with cash usage accounting for 12.7% of the country’s GDP in 2016.

Over-the-counter withdrawals accounted for $1.65 trillion, while $700 billion was withdrawn from ATMs.

Despite technological innovations breaking new frontiers in convenience and security, the feeling of hard cash at your fingertips isn’t going anywhere.

Cash accounted for 19% of all payments in 2020.

(Federal Reserve System)

Based on the Diary of Consumer Payment Choice that was published in 2021, the use of cash and debit cards has decreased while the use of credit cards has increased. Moreover, in 2020, cash accounted for only 19% of all payments made by consumers in the United States.

This was a significant drop compared to 2018 and 2019, when it made up 26% of all payments. The use of debit cards has also decreased slightly, going from 30% in 2019 to 28% in 2020. As expected, credit cards were used more during the same period, rising from 23% in 2018 to 27% in 2020. 

People use cash most often for everyday purchases, with more than half of transactions under $10 taking place in cash.

(US Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

While the question “What percentage of transactions are cash?” is valid, it’s not the only aspect that should be taken into consideration. Even though cash represents a large volume of payments, the value of those payments is still low. 

It makes sense that the bigger the payment, the less likely one is to make it with cash. As the value of transactions rises, other forms of payment, like credit and debit cards, become more popular. 

Credit and debit cards combined account for 50%-60% of payments in the $10-$100 bracket. 

Above that limit, people typically use checks or automatic electronic payments to cover their most significant transactions, including mortgage repayments and debt installments. These two payment methods account for 50% of all transaction value.

The average value of credit card transactions is $57.

(Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)

There are twice as many individual transactions made in cash than using a credit card. The value of those transactions, however, is more than double in favor of credit cards: $22 compared to $57. Debit cards sit somewhere in the middle, with slightly fewer total transactions than cash and a slightly lower average payment amount than credit cards.

The monthly value of debit card transactions surpasses both credit cards and cash: $545.60 for average monthly debit card spending, compared to $473.10 and $310.20 for credit card and cash spending, respectively.

Cash is used more frequently in low-income households; 47% of transactions in households with less than $25,000 a year are made using cash.

(US Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

Credit card usage rises consistently with household income. From just 7% of transactions in the poorest households, this figure rises to 33% in households with an annual income greater than $125,000.

Debit cards are consistently used across the income spectrum. They account for 27-31% of all transactions, with a slight drop in the highest income brackets. 

Revolving consumer credit in the US has breached the $1 trillion threshold.

(The Balance)

Credit cards aggregate revolving debt. By charging funds to your credit card, you’re borrowing that money from the bank with interest. When you repay $100 of your $500 debt at the end of the month, you can re-borrow (revolve) it again. 

Using a credit card responsibly is a great way to boost your credit score rating. However, using it incorrectly can cause immense problems in the long run.

There is $2.283 trillion worth of cash in circulation in the US.

(YCharts)

The advent of mobile payment platforms such as Apple Pay and Venmo has not hindered the increase of cash in circulation. From $240 billion in 1989 to $1.7 trillion in 2019, cash has not yet seen a year-on-year decline.

In the meantime, the M0 measure stands at $2.283 trillion as of October 2022, showing that the amount of cash in circulation is still growing.

Even small denominations - including $1, $2, and $5 bills - have seen a 2.5% year-on-year increase.

13% of American consumers say they always have cash on hand.

(LendEDU)

The whole world is weighing in on the cash versus credit debate, and the cashless option is taking over slowly but surely.

Although 41% of respondents to LendEDU’s 2017 survey said they sometimes have cash on hand, 2.51% said they never do. That’s 9 million Americans who never use paper money.

Only 14% of American consumers use cash for all their weekly purchases.

(Pew Research Center)

Another proof that cash is no longer king: Only 14% of American consumers use it for all their weekly purchases, according to the Pew Research Center. At the same time, 44% confirmed they use cash for some purchases, while 41% hardly ever use it.

These numbers show that the cashless culture is on the rise, with more people using credit and debit cards or mobile payment platforms to make purchases. Just a few years ago, in 2015, 24% of respondents said they used cash for all or almost all of their weekly purchases, and 51% of the respondents used it for some of their purchases.

According to an MIT study, credit cards make people spend more money - sometimes up to 83% more.

(Marketing Letters)

In this study, researchers asked subjects to bid on various items, including tickets for sporting events, in a blind auction. They were all told that the highest bid would get the item. One group was told that they would need to pay in cash, and the other that they would have to pay using their credit card. 

The conclusion of this cash vs. credit battle was that paying with plastic makes people spend more money. The average cash bid for Celtics tickets was $29, while cardholders offered a whopping $61. 

It looks like the heavy marketing campaigns for credit card rewards programs have really done the trick. Combined with the fact that it’s much easier to part with intangible money than it is to let go of physical paper, this means that even the average tip amount is 13% larger when paying with a credit card.

The average credit card debt in America in 2022 is $6,198.

(Credit Karma)

According to Credit Karma’s study on credit card debt in America, the average per person is $6,198. If we compare it with the numbers Experian reported previously, we’ll observe that not much has changed since 2019 when the average debt was $6,028.

Credit cards are a means of purchasing a line of credit from lenders. Paying off credit card debt on time can do wonders for your credit score, but at the same time, it can quickly spiral out of control if not tended to on a regular basis.

This is one of the reasons why many people prefer cash transactions vs. electronic ones, so they can have a better overview of their expenses and avoid overspending.

In 2021, Americans held an average of $67 in cash in their pockets, purses, and wallets.

(US Federal Reserve)

How much cash do you carry around with you? It seems that if you’re a US citizen in the 25-34 age bracket, the answer is $47 on average. At the same time, those in the 65+ age group had an average of $101 in cash on them. So, the older you are, the more money you are likely to hold, according to cash spending statistics.

The percentage of people who hold cash daily has remained stable from year to year, except in the lowest and highest income brackets, where they have a slight upward trajectory.

Cash is used for 19% of in-person payments.

(Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

Online shopping has not completely conquered the market yet. In fact, it isn’t even close; three-quarters of all transactions still take place in person.

From 2015 to 2017, the share of in-person transactions that took place in cash dropped by 1% per year. At the same time, while credit cards recorded a 4% increase in popularity during this period, according to cash vs. credit card spending statistics. 

However, if you look at the current consumer spending habits, you will see that things have drastically changed, and cash is no longer the preferred payment method for these transactions. 

According to the 2022 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice, only 19% of in-person payments in 2021 were made using cash. In contrast, credit cards accounted for 32% of all in-person payments, whereas debit cards were dominant with 44%.

80% of gifts and person-to-person transfers take place in cash.

(US Federal Reserve)

It seems there’s still something magical about receiving a wad of cash as a present, as opposed to getting that same amount via your online bank account. Four times out of five, that’s how people choose to treat someone they care about. 

However, in the cash vs. credit card battle, credit cards are winning when it comes to general merchandise transactions. That’s a broad term describing all retail items that are not groceries. For these types of transactions, credit and debit cards are used 66% of the time, while cash holds a 23% share.

Cash accounts for 82% of consumer transactions in Austria and Germany.

(Deutsche Bundesbank)

A comparative survey that focused on seven economically developed countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US) has shown that German-speaking countries favor cash the most.

In these two countries, the credit card to cash transaction value also skews heavily toward cash, with credit cards holding a meager 4% share in transaction value. Cash represents 65% and 53% of transaction value in Austria and Germany, respectively.

Nearly 90% of consumer transactions in Mexico are completed using cash.

(PYMNTS.com)

Cash accounted for 26.1% of the Mexican GDP in 2016, compared to around 13% in the US. That’s why online retailers are trying to find new ways to tap into the 14th-largest consumer market in the world. 

Because Mexicans prefer using cash vs. a credit card for almost everything, Amazon started selling gift cards in convenience stores six months after its launch in this Central American country. Moreover, business models that allow people to buy online and pick up in person are becoming increasingly popular. 

Even though alternative payment methods are slowly eating away at cash’s share of the Mexican market, cash usage is still projected to grow. 

Only 2.5% of the money supply in Norway and Sweden is cash.

(Deloitte)

Cash almost never changes hands in these two Nordic countries. When someone wants to lend their friend money, they zap it over using a mobile app. When they pay for in-store items, they use cards. 

Unsurprisingly, the amount of Swedish krona in circulation has dropped from SEK 77 billion in 2015 to SEK 55 billion in 2017. Even banks are contributing to the cashless goal by removing cash from their branches and downsizing.

The Deloitte experts who analyzed the cash use in these countries believe it will still remain legal tender for some time but that its presence will continue to deteriorate in the coming years. They predict that at least one Nordic country will become de facto cashless by 2025.

Credit card usage statistics by country show that Canadians hold the largest credit card share per capita: 82.5%.

(The Global Economy)

The most significant reason why people use credit cards is that they represent the easiest way to procure a line of credit. Canadians lead the way globally when it comes to credit card usage, while Myanmar (Burma) is at the bottom of the list. Just 0.06% of Burmese citizens over the age of 15 have credit cards.

Mobile payments in China doubled in a year, from $8.4 trillion in 2016 to $17.4 trillion in 2017.

(Financial Times)

Despite the efforts of the Central Bank of China to crack down on merchants who no longer accept cash, mobile payment giants Ant Financial and Tencent are growing at an astronomical rate.

When you consider the booming smartphone industry in China, the fact that 80% of Chinese consumers use proximity mobile payments is jaw-dropping. The US pales in comparison, at just 25.3%. 

64% of US citizens believe their country will become a cashless society.

(Gallup)

According to credit card vs. cash statistics, some Nordic countries, like Sweden and Norway, are well on the way to becoming completely cashless, and it seems like the US might not be far behind. A study by Gallup showed that 64% of Americans think that cash will disappear one day. 

At the same time, only 21% of respondents believe this scenario is unlikely to happen, while 15% answered that they think this is very unlikely to happen. 

Expectedly, respondents from older age groups were less likely to think that the US would go cashless. While 45% of US adults said they would be upset if cash disappeared, just 9% said they would be "happy" to see this scenario unfold.

Based on multiple cash vs. credit card spending statistics, it’s evident that a cashless society is inevitable. The world is moving towards a future where physical money will no longer be necessary. 

Although some people believe a cashless society sounds like an amazing idea, others have reservations about it. The main concern is what would happen if the power went out and the servers went down. If everything became digital all of a sudden, how would we be able to access our money?

Final Thoughts

Now that we have seen what percentage of US transactions are cash and what percentage are processed with credit cards, it is time to draw some conclusions. Although cash remains one of the most popular methods of payment, credit cards are slowly but surely gaining ground. This is evident from the fact that the number of average credit card transactions per month has increased significantly in recent years.

When it comes to spending, people tend to use cash for smaller amounts and credit cards for substantial purchases. This is likely because they feel more comfortable carrying around a small amount of cash.

All things considered, it is clear that cash and credit cards are both important methods of payment in the US and that they will continue to shape the way people spend their money.

FAQ

Why should you use cash instead of credit cards?

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If you're considering credit vs. cash, the decision should really depend on your spending habits. For those who tend to spend within their means and pay off their credit card balance in full each month, then using credit cards can be a great way to earn rewards like cash back or points that can be used for travel. 

However, if you're someone who often carries a balance on their credit card or tends to spend more than they can afford, then using cash may be a better option.

What is the smartest way to use a credit card?

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If you're going to use a credit card, it's important to be smart about it. You should only use your credit card for purchases you can afford to pay off in full. Also, you should try to avoid carrying a balance from month to month by making more than the minimum payment each month. 

Be sure to keep an eye on your credit utilization ratio, which is the amount of your credit limit that you're using. It's best to keep your credit utilization ratio below 30%, so aim for a balance that's less than one third of your credit limit. Finally, be sure to pay your bill on time each month to avoid late fees and damage to your credit score.

Do people prefer cash or credit?

+

The cash vs. credit card dilemma boils down to your preferences. Some people prefer to use cash because they like to have more control over their spending. They may also feel like they can better track their finances when using cash. 

Other people prefer credit cards because they like the convenience and rewards that come with using them. Ultimately, it's up to the individual to decide which payment method works best for them.

Sources

About author

Albert Einstein is said to have identified compound interest as mankind’s greatest invention. That story’s probably apocryphal, but it conveys a deep truth about the power of fiscal policy to change the world along with our daily lives. Civilization became possible only when Sumerians of the Bronze Age invented money. Today, economic issues influence every aspect of daily life. My job at Fortunly is an opportunity to analyze government policies and banking practices, sharing the results of my research in articles that can help you make better, smarter decisions for yourself and your family.

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