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Only a small number of people are swapping cash for credit during coronavirus, but this expert says that will change

Cash transactions have only seen small decreases during the coronavirus pandemic. Select speaks to an expert about his findings.

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It might be easy to assume that most people are relying on their credit cards to help make ends meet during the coronavirus outbreak — but credit card usage has only captured an additional 3.4% of all in-store transactions since January, global data analytics firm The NPD Group reports.

According to NPD's most recent "Checkout Receipt Data," credit cards now make up 82.1% of all retail (in-store) transactions in the U.S. amid coronavirus (up from 78.7% in January of this year). The remaining percentage represents cash transactions in stores. While spending remains consistent, the data shows that a small percentage of people who used to use cash are now opting for credit cards to do their shopping.

The fact that credit card usage has only slightly increased in share of transactions since the start of the global pandemic is a bit surprising, Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry advisor for retail, tells Select.

"While we would think that credit is going to be the big number that would grow because people don't have the money and they would have to put it on their credit card, so far we haven't seen that," Cohen says.

Below, Cohen shares his insight into this data about credit card usage and what he predicts for the future.

Why only a small number of people are swapping cash for credit

The latest data from NPD indicates that people are still using cash almost as much as before to purchase their emergency expenses

Cohen says he expected these cash transactions to have a more significant drop. "It went down a little bit, but not as much as one would think," he says. "People were saying [that] cash carries germs, you shouldn't use the cash and people don't want to touch cash — but no, not yet."

In fact, a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that even applications for credit cards have dropped by 40%. But while you may be hesitant about applying for new credit at this time, know that some cards can help you pay for your purchases, like groceries or household essentials.

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Other credit cards offer the option to redeem your rewards as a statement credit applied to your balance. This would decrease your next bill payment by letting you apply the cash back you accrue to your monthly balance to offset your spending.

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Why people are still using cash

If you recall in the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, a lot of people ran to their banks in a frenzy and withdrew cash to have on-hand for any emergencies, Cohen points out. They were in a hurry to have cash in their hands.

He also notes that many people are still using ATM machines, especially if they can't do direct deposit with their paychecks. "Now they have to go to the ATM and get cash," Cohen says. 

What the future looks like

Millions of Americans have received stimulus checks from the government, and while this windfall of money may have stalled people from turning to their credit cards for help, Cohen predicts that we will see people starting to use more credit, especially as the job market continues to linger.

"Each week that goes by, you get further and further away from that stimulus money and I think you're going to see credit cards start to accelerate in usage," Cohen says. "People are going to need to reach into the credit lines to be able to start to make some of these purchases."

Correction: This story has been revised to correct that credit card usage has captured an additional 3.4% of all in-store transactions since January. An earlier version misstated the scope of credit card usage.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, click here.

Information about the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication; if you purchase something through Select links, we may earn a commission.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.