South Korea tests prepaid cards to replace pocket change

A Korean trial for coin-free shopping could eliminate many hassles.

Woohae Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Coins are a pain in more ways than one. You probably don't like fishing for change, of course, but they're also expensive to make (the US loses money on every penny) and require mining that hurts the environment. Wouldn't it be good to get rid of coins altogether? South Korea is trying just that. The country is starting a trial that could lead to a coinless society. As of April 20th, shoppers at several stores (Seven Eleven, CU, E-Mart, Lotte Mart and Lotte Department Store) can deposit their change into mobile and prepaid cards. If you need to pay with cash, you can stick with paper notes instead of lugging around coins that you're unlikely to use all that often.

Officials don't necessarily see this leading to a cashless society. They're open to the idea, but the short-term concerns revolve around convenience as well as the government's own costs. South Korea spent about $47 million making coins in 2016 alone. At the least, though, this is a half-step that acknowledges that physical money doesn't matter quite so much in the era of debit cards and mobile payments. And a trial is arguably a wiser move than a wholesale leap -- just ask India what happened when it demonetized commonly used bills with very little warning.