Leia Ben Naceur, Research Community Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

“Cash or card?” How do mental health problems impact how we spend money?

15 September 2023

  • We spoke to our Research Community about how they use cash, cards and online and mobile banking services

  • Community members told us about the ways their experience of mental health problems can impact their use of cash and cards. Many prefer to use cash to help with budgeting and managing their spending.

  • Their insights also highlighted some changes that could make cards, online and mobile banking better meet the needs of people with mental health problems.

Is cash still king? With the advent of online banking, payment cards and contactless, cash transactions seem to be becoming a rarity. Given the many “we’re cashless” stickers popping up in restaurant windows it can feel like cash has disappeared altogether.

However, it seems the use of cash is on the rise during the cost of living crisis, as people turn to coins and notes to help with budgeting in these trying times. The government also recently announced that free access to cash will be protected.

To understand why people with mental health problems might prefer to use cash, and why cash use may be on the rise given the psychological impact of the cost of living crisis, we turned to our Research Community for their insights. We also wanted to know if anything had changed since we last asked them about cash in 2020.

The Research Community’s role

To anyone new to the work of Money and Mental Health, everything we do stems from the insight of our Research Community – a group of around 5,000 people who are experts by experience when it comes to financial difficulties and mental health problems.

In consulting our Community for their experiences and opinions, we hope to bring about the most impactful changes to the lives of our members and the wider population of people with mental health problems.

We learnt that a substantial minority still prefer to use cash to make their purchases, largely due to the help with budgeting, managing spending and the security that cash gives them. In particular, we heard  how cash can be an important asset during periods of poor mental health. For example, someone can give cash to friends or family to help with shopping at times when they are too unwell to leave the house.

“Contactless and card payments are stressful, e.g. card gets refused, transaction fails, card gets hacked or put through twice by server! Cash is easier, no risk of hacking, cloning, rejection. Card can be stressful or anxiety inducing when things go wrong” Expert by experience

Members who largely use cash provided us with a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of why they prefer it over cards and online banking. Their reasons ranged from being able to better control spending when in the midst of a mental health crisis, to having something to physically keep track of spending.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, non-cash payments were felt to have the opposite effect, such as facilitating impulsive spending or not feeling ‘real’. We also heard about the difficulties people face when trying to use online and mobile banking, like complex log-in processes.

“It’s too easy to tap the card and not remember how much you have spent. I can limit how much money I take with me with cash so impulse spending risks are lessened.” Expert by experience

“The log in [process] is a headache and I can’t be bothered with trying and failing so many times before getting in.” Expert by experience

What can be done

For some, online banking and card or contactless transactions made managing their finances and budgets overwhelming when unwell. But many still recognise the good they can do. If financial services providers could create tools to help manage spending during periods of poor mental health – alongside ongoing and continued support from banking staff – our members felt that their payment needs might be better met.

By approaching banking with personalised support at the forefront, financial services providers would be able to go a long way in helping our Research Community members, and those of us with mental health problems more widely, feel more confident  in using their products and services.

Firms must support, listen and respond to people living with mental health problems engaging with their services. Whether you prefer cash or card, that could help to reduce the stress that can come with managing money alongside a mental health problem.

If you’d like to give your insight to us about your experiences of financial difficulty and mental health we’d love to hear from you. 


If you work for a financial service provider and would like to find out more about how we can work with you to make improvements for people with mental health problems, please contact Rosie at [email protected].