Pandemic-related Shifts in Consumer Payment Patterns Persisted into 2021

SAN FRANCISCO – The ways U.S. consumers use cash and other payment methods continue to show the marks of the COVID-19 pandemic, with households holding modestly higher amounts of cash while also migrating toward not-in-person payments, according to a recent survey conducted by the Federal Reserve System’s Cash Product Office (CPO) and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

The patterns of consumer behavior established in late summer 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to hold true into spring of 2021, despite the fact that businesses across the U.S. reopened for indoor and outdoor services. Consumers are holding more cash as a store of value and are making fewer in-person cash payments, compared to before the pandemic. Despite the persistent higher demand for cash, only 1 in 100 consumers reported disruptions when receiving change. These are among the key findings from the most recent Consumer Payments and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the April 2021 Supplemental Survey.

As cash demand remained high throughout the pandemic, the Third Supplemental Survey has found that the average value of store of value cash continued to increase. Consumers on average held $325 in total cash holdings in April 2021, which is an increase of approximately $80 compared to pre-pandemic data from October 2019. However, the average value of money consumers held in their pocket, purse, or wallet remained consistent compared to pre-pandemic levels at around $70. Despite this trend toward higher cash holdings, the share of consumers making an actual cash payment in the last 30 days also decreased to 58 percent, down from 73 percent in August 2020.

While it has been widely reported that there is a coin shortage, in fact the issue is one of a disruption in the normal circulation patterns of coin as part of cash transactions. Consumers reported experiencing little disruption when receiving change, which may indicate that while many individuals are not making in-person cash payments and therefore not experiencing issues receiving coin, those who are making in-person cash payments are doing so more often than in August 2020. This has resulted in greater demand for coin at a time when pandemic conditions have translated to lower coin deposits to the Federal Reserve from Banks. The pandemic has underscored the challenges in forecasting consumer payment behavior, as well as the need for the U.S. economy to maintain a strong and resilient payments system and cash supply chain.

The research from the Consumer Payments and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the April 2021 Supplemental Survey report also found that in April and May of 2021:

  • Overall demand for cash has continued to increase throughout the pandemic.
  • However, the share of individuals who reported making an in-person payment over the previous 30 days remains well below pre-pandemic levels, at 56 percent in April 2021.
  • The share of individuals making in-person payments and using cash in April 2021 declined slightly compared to August 2020.

Last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s extraordinary disruptions, the CPO and Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta also conducted supplemental consumer surveys in April and August 2020. The third supplemental survey was conducted in April 2021, following the publication of the 2021 Findings from the Diary of Consumer Payment Choice.

About the Diary of Consumer Payment Choice

The Diary is a survey designed to study payment behaviors using a nationally representative sample of U.S. consumers. Participants are asked to record information on all transactions – purchases, bill payments, deposits, withdrawals, etc. – conducted during assigned, overlapping consecutive three-day periods. The COVID surveys described in the two recent supplement papers rely on this nationally representative sample, asking Diary participants to answer questions describing recent payment behaviors along with other questions regarding the pandemic. The Diary of Consumer Payment Choice is a collaboration between the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and San Francisco, and the Federal Reserve Cash Product Office.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (SF Fed) serves the public by promoting a healthy, sustainable economy, and supporting the nation’s financial and payment systems. With offices in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Portland and Phoenix, the Bank serves the Twelfth Federal Reserve District, which includes one-fifth of the nation’s population and represents the world’s fourth-largest economy. As part of the nation’s central bank, the SF Fed informs monetary policy, regulates banks, administers certain consumer protection laws and acts as a financial partner to the U.S. government.