Cash, Goats and Zebras

samfloy~2 November 2019 /Denmark

This week we’re talking about cash in Denmark. Or rather the lack of it.

Since arriving in Copenhagen I’ve been using Revolut to do my purchases. It’s one of those modern debit cards (linked to my UK bank account) that doesn’t charge fees for overseas spending.

Once I’m fully over the line with Project Danish Residency Admin I’ll be able to get a bank account here, however when it gets sorted my sense is that it’ll just be a switch of plastic, rather than a fundamental change in how I’ve been buying things.

In the two months I’ve been here, I’ve only taken out cash once and used it a few times.

Outdated phrases

In Danish class this week we went through how to buy things at the shops.

The example conversation involved going to a fishmonger (“fiskehandler”), asking for the price of some salmon and before paying, the shopkeeper asking “på beløbet?”.

It literally means “on the amount?” and is used to ask if the cashier should add extra to the bill, and give the difference in cash.

Our teacher deemed that the outdated aspect of the interaction was not the fact that people visit fishmongers these days, but that the option for cashback would be necessary.

Crunching the numbers

In writing this I was curious as to how many cash vs non-cash transactions I’ve done.

Using the app, it’s straightforward to see the debit card purchases, and the cash ones I can count on one hand.

The results are:

Food markets have all accepted card and it’s rare to see people flash the cash at the supermarket aisle.

I’ve not explored out of Copenhagen much, but in the conversation we had in class, it seems like non-cash payments are prevalent elsewhere in the country.

Other students had stories of paying at church and to homeless people using MobilePay.

Cashless-less south of the border

Interestingly in Berlin, it was much less common to pay by card. Several times we got caught out when it came to paying and had to scour nearby streets to find an ATM. 

The reason, our Berlin friends said, was that there’s less trust in banks in Germany, and so shop/ bar/ restaurant owners would rather hold cash than have money held in 0s and 1s in an account.

Trust in the banking system could, therefore, become an interesting pre-cursor for the success of consumer FinTech (finance technology) companies looking to disrupt a country’s industry.


In other news…

I’m not normally one for Youtube but found myself clicking random links a few days ago and before I knew it, an hour had gone.

One that stuck most was about why horses were domesticated and zebras weren’t.

Driving around in East Africa, it would be common to see herds of zebra roaming around in the wild which made me wonder why they hadn’t been put to use like horses have.

The video gives a very neat explanation, as well as explaining the characteristics necessary for domesticating animals (and why there are only 10 or so worldwide). 

Regarding zebras vs horses, the short version is that horses have familial bonds, and so if you tame the “alpha horse”, the others will follow. Zebras, on the other hand, are much more individualistic and so won’t alter their behaviour even if you are able to capture and tame one of their group. Needing to tame each and every wild zebra means the costs > benefits.

This theme, and the consequences of domestication have also been explored by Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel).

He poses the following thought:

“Just think what the course of world history might have been like if Africa’s rhinos and hippos had lent themselves to domestication! If that had been possible, African cavalry mounted on rhinos or hippos would have made mincemeat of European cavalry mounted on horses.” 


More on the latter is explained here.


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