Jan 11, 2023 - News

Businesses that reject cash are a growing concern in Seattle area

Illustration of a phone with a mobile payment icon on the screen, unzipping to show cards and money inside.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Some King County officials are worried about what they see as a growing trend: Businesses refusing to take cash.

What's happening: A new proposal would ban businesses in unincorporated King County from going cashless, requiring them to accept actual money — not solely credit cards or electronic payments.

Why it matters: Not everyone has a bank account, making it difficult or impossible for them to purchase items from stores that don't take physical currency.

Details: The King County measure wouldn't apply to businesses in Seattle — only to those in unincorporated parts of the county.

  • But the sponsor of the legislation, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, said she's hoping it spurs a broader conversation about whether retailers should be allowed to reject cash payments.
  • "My concern is for the lowest income, marginalized communities," Kohl-Welles told Axios this week.

By the numbers: County officials estimate roughly 2% to 3% of Washington residents don't have bank accounts, while another 17% are "underbanked," meaning they often rely on services such as money orders or payday loans.

  • According to Pew Research Center data, lower-income Americans are more likely to use cash for most of their purchases, while Black and Hispanic people use cash at higher rates than white people.

Zoom in: Seattle doesn't appear to have any rule requiring businesses to take cash, according to city staff. Nor is a citywide ban on cashless businesses now under consideration.

  • But Seattle resident Summer Stinson, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a progressive nonprofit, thinks the City Council should take up the issue.
  • She told Axios she was surprised recently when she gave her teenage son $15 to go get doughnuts, but the store wouldn't accept the money.
  • That was only a mild inconvenience for her, she said, but for people who rely on cash to buy food or other essentials, it could be a much bigger problem.

What they're saying: "We are really pushing them further out of the economy by saying, 'Unless you have a card, you can't purchase anything like a doughnut," Stinson said.

Yes, but: Having cash on hand poses a safety risk for retailers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote in a recent online post. "By removing cash, businesses also eliminate the likelihood of theft," the chamber wrote.

  • Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who chairs the council's economic development committee, said she believes more shops started going cashless for public health reasons during the pandemic — then kept the policy "because it worked well for them."
  • She told Axios she'd want to be cautious about "mandating rules that could end up rendering workers and customers less safe."
  • The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce hasn't taken a position on the King County legislation.

What's next: Kohl-Welles' proposal has yet to be considered at a formal meeting of the King County Council.

  • But Councilmember Sarah Perry, who chairs the committee it was referred to, told Axios she considers the issue "imperative" to address, and plans to hold a hearing within the next couple of months.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Seattle.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Seattle stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Seattle.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more