Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

I only have plastic

When I lived in the UK I had a lot of credit cards. I made a hobby of moving non existent money between one account and another to try to keep the interest payments down. When I left the UK I cancelled the majority of my plastic but I hung on to a couple for one reason or another. Nowadays I hardly ever use my British plastic but, every time the banks try to take them away, I obstinately hang on to them "just in case".

Every now and again one of the British card issuers sells or buys my account and changes something or other. Barclaycard recently did just that when they terminated an agreement with AMEX. As an incentive to use the new card they offered me a bracelet so that I could make small, contactless payments by simply waving my forearm at the credit card machine. Something to speed up buying the morning latte. Why not I thought? Well, because I live in Spain! I suspect I will never use it.

I was a Barclaycard customer in Spain too. Barclaycard sold their operation to Banco Popular who renamed the card WiZink. The name sounds OK in Spanish, if a bit corny, but rubbish in English. It took ages for the websites and the cards to change after the purchase and WiZink got around to the rebranding just as Banco Popular went belly up. It was bought by Santander for 1€. Strange really; years ago Santander absorbed the bank where I had my Spanish current account.

I use my credit card a fair bit in Spain but I use it in quite an old fashioned way. I use it for decent sized purchases - at a clothes shop, for the big shops in the supermarket, for diesel, for the posh restaurant and for anything online. Even if there were sandwich shops in Spain, and Spaniards cannot understand why we like to mix so many ingredients between two slices of bread, so there aren't, I wouldn't think to buy a sandwich and a coke with plastic. In Spain I use money. I go to a bank machine and take money out of my current account. I then use those notes (and the coins that they spawn) to buy beer, duct tape and similarly useful articles.

I know that Denmark is now more or less cashless. When we were in Hungary a little while ago we were always asked if we wanted to pay with cash or card even when we'd just had a couple of beers. The last time I visited the UK one of the things that struck me was how the tiniest of purchases were made with plastic. I have seen Spaniards pay small amounts on plastic but my impression is that it's not generalised. So I wondered if it's just me that's old fashioned, if it's another of those rural/urban things, if I should catch up and start paying for coffee with virtual money or if there is a real difference between Spain and some other European countries.

The answer seems to be that it's the way that the banks operate that's different, plus a bit of inertia.

Spanish banks now charge for pulling money out of cashpoints that aren't theirs. There are also fewer cashpoints because of the closure and merger of so many offices within the troubled banking sector. As a result, for the first time last year more money was spent on credit and debit cards than in cash. So there is a real increase in the use of plastic.

On the other hand only 16% of all transactions in Spain are made on plastic as against figures of around 50% in Portugal or France. One reason for that may be that only 40% of all Spanish businesses accept plastic. And in turn it seems likely that this low percentage of acceptance is because, historically, Spanish banks charged high commissions to retailers on plastic card transactions. In fact the Government introduced legislation in 2014 that limited the commission that the banks could charge the businesses for each transaction. That included very low percentages on micro purchases. Despite this there are still lots of businesses with the signs up to say that you can't pay amounts of less than so many euros with plastic. The suggestion, in many of the articles that I read, was that Spanish traders don't pay a lot of notice to the blurb sent to them by plastic card companies. As a consequence many businesses are still under the impression that commission charges on plastic transactions are very high and it will be a while before the message gets home.

I should add that when the banks were faced with the loss of income on the commissions charged to traders they responded by charging customers more to hold the cards. I don't pay anything for the maintenance of my UK cards but I pay 36€ a year for my Spanish bank debit card. There's also an annual charge for my credit card but I never pay that as the charge is refunded so long as I spend more than so much per year. Interestingly though the Spanish cards charge a lot less for "foreign" transactions than the British cards.

So it's not something amongst we yokels nor is it simply my misperception. Spaniards really do use plastic less than a lot of other Europeans.

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