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Reader’s story: How I adapted to Sweden’s cashless society

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

a hand rejecting Swedish banknotes
Once you go cashless, can you ever go back, asks a The Local reader in this column. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

I’ve lived in Sweden for almost a year now. I did my daily groceries, took taxis, went on public transport, ordered take away and even bought an apartment. Despite all these transactions, I can honestly say I would not know what a krona looks like for the simple reason that I’ve never seen one. Well, as a paper napkin once, but that wasn’t legal tender.

Before moving, I had heard about Sweden going cashless and Stockholm being the pilot city for that experiment. But I was sceptical. It sounded like something governments say to make themselves seem more modern and digital. It is also something banks like to say to justify closing branch offices.

Maybe my scepticism stemmed from having lived in Hong Kong which is incredibly cash focused and where many transactions were still settled by cheque as if it were the 80s. This was not improved by living in Switzerland where I worked at a bank. The bank was always propagating to its clients to do all their banking online and not bother with cash. The Swiss senior bankers, and the Swiss themselves in general, would walk around with hundreds of Francs in cash in their wallets; just in case they felt the urge to buy a second-hand car at short notice, I presumed.

The adjustment to full cashless feels a little like when they banned smoking from restaurants and bars: at first you think it will be weird. After about two weeks of going to smokeless restaurants, you wondered what maniac allowed people to smoke inside while you were having dinner in the first place.

The same goes for cash when you think about it. Your employer puts the money in your bank account. You queue at an ATM to get it out and then when you go to buy groceries, you give it to a supermarket who then bring it back to their bank in an armoured truck, who put it in the supermarket’s bank account. Why not take the money from your bank account and put it in the supermarket’s bank account directly and cut out the circus in the middle?

After 11 months of no cash, I’m completely adjusted and excited. I happily bleep and Swish and don’t miss the pot of coins on my desk in the slightest. It also seems that Swedish society has adapted well. Except at Systembolaget, where someone occasionally pays with cash, nearly everyone from young to old pays with their phone or card without blinking.

This made me wonder why Sweden seems so far ahead of other countries in this regard. One thing a colleague mentioned was a clever safety angle used to push the cashless society. An abundance of cash everywhere is a risk for those handling it. It’s the same reason most countries justified the smoking ban: health and safety of staff working in restaurants and bars.

In addition, I suspect that Swedes enjoy the modernity of abandoning the pot of coins on their desks to lead the way to the cashless future ahead of the rest of the world.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place. 

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