You can buy more things than ever with cryptocurrency these days, from video games to new furniture. But should you?
“I wouldn’t,” says Kiana Danial, author of “Cryptocurrency Investing for Dummies” and the personality behind @Investdiva on Instagram. While there are a few circumstances where it can make sense, the practical answer for most people is no.
Cryptocurrency markets are notoriously volatile, and the price you pay for an item today may not be what your purchase is worth tomorrow. Plus, many companies experimenting with crypto payments only accept Bitcoin, which experts say is one of the worst cryptos you could choose to pay for something.
Nevertheless, people are interested in how crypto might work as a payment method. Nearly 20% of all U.S. adults say they’re likely to make a purchase using crypto, according to a recent report by PYMNTS.com, a news and research platform for payments and commerce. But before you cash in your Bitcoin to top up the balance on your Starbucks app, here’s what experts have to say about purchasing with crypto:
Don’t Pay With Bitcoin
Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, was originally intended to be used exactly like money. Its white paper dubbed it a “peer-to-peer electronic cash system.” But Bitcoin’s frequent and volatile price fluctuations make that unrealistic in practice.
“The price volatility kind of makes it useless as an electronic cash system,” says Ollie Leech, learn editor at CoinDesk, a leading cryptocurrency news outlet. “No person in their right mind would want to buy a coffee with Bitcoin. Say you pay $3 for the coffee, and tomorrow your Bitcoin could be worth $30. That’s a loss.”
Just one year ago, in June 2020, Bitcoin’s value was under $10,000. Since then, it reached a high of more than $64,000 and, despite a recent price drop, remains close to $40,000. Imagine a video game that cost $50 worth of Bitcoin last June. If you waited until today to buy it instead, the same price in Bitcoin today would now cost you $200.
People buy Bitcoin “not because they expect to be able to go to the store and spend it, but because they expect it to hold its value,” says Galen Moore, director of data and indexes at CoinDesk.
What About Other Cryptos?
Bitcoin has failed at its intended mission to become a new currency, but experts say there are other cryptocurrencies better for transacting. “Every one of them are optimized for certain things. For example, you wouldn’t go to the store and pay for groceries with gold,” says Danial — in the same way you shouldn’t spend Bitcoin on your morning latte.
Some popular cryptos specifically designed to work better for spending include Dash, Manero, and XRP, according to Danial. Stablecoins, like Tether or USD coin, can also make better alternatives for purchasing, since their prices are tied to existing currencies.
“There are coins that are more like cash,” says Pat White, co-founder and CEO of Bitwave, a company that helps businesses with crypto tax reporting. These coins are a better choice for spending, in theory, thanks to faster processing and lower fees. “They are designed to be spent and used very quickly.”
But in reality, there’s still a downside to using crypto developed to mimic cash to make payments. Take Bitcoin Cash (BCH), for example. BCH came about after the original Bitcoin proved itself too volatile to be used as a new kind of internet money. A group of creators decided to split off from the original crypto and create Bitcoin Cash, which was designed as a more stable version to be used for transactions. But in practice, Bitcoin Cash is still highly volatile. In the last year its price has run from around $250 per coin to over $1,500, highlighting the risk of using it to buy something at the wrong time.
Taxes are another complication. While you don’t need to report your crypto purchases to the IRS, you do need to report when trading a cryptocurrency for goods or services. Each time you make a purchase using crypto, you need to track your cost basis, or the fair market value of the crypto when you bought it versus when you used to transact, and report that capital gain or loss.
Are There Other Real-World Uses For Crypto?
For American citizens in America, “There’s probably not going to be a good reason to buy things in crypto,” Danial says.
That’s because the U.S. dollar fluctuates less than the vast majority of cryptocurrencies out there. However, when you consider a currency that’s less safe and stable than the U.S. dollar, the case for cryptocurrency payments increases, says Roger Aliaga-Díaz, principal and senior economist with Vanguard Investment Strategy Group.
Take a volatile currency like the Iranian Rial. “It loses value every single day,” Danial says. “I’m Iranian, my parents are as well, and whenever they go to Iran they try to never convert any money to Rial, because it just goes down.”
Would You Ever Buy Things With Crypto?
While it’s not the wisest financial decision, crypto payments can provide an alternative transaction method for those who don’t have the necessary requirements for opening a bank account, or can’t access traditional financing in a certain place. For example, unbanked people can transfer money to others, even internationally, using their crypto wallets, or make purchases using crypto with participating merchants using apps like BitPay, all without the need to go through traditional financial institutions.
Some people may also choose to buy goods with crypto to capitalize upon the speed of transaction. Globally, “a lot of deals are being made with crypto,” Danial says. “Like, maybe a prince in Dubai wants to buy a Lamborghini from Italy, and wants it immediately and doesn’t want to wait for deposits and bank information and everything, so they purchase it using crypto.”
Crypto transactions are also relatively anonymous — which is why they have a reputation as being used by criminals to buy and sell on online black markets. Crypto’s prevalence as a form of payment for illegal trades persists. It played a role in recovering the Colonial Pipeline — a key gas line servicing the U.S. Gulf and East Coasts — last month, after hackers shut down its computer systems until they were paid $4.4 million in Bitcoin. The U.S. government has since seized back $2.3 million of that ransom fee (most of what was originally paid, since the price of Bitcoin has dipped recently).
As for businesses willing to accept payment in crypto, expect to see more as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies grow in popularity. Some companies may be looking to cash in on the latest craze, or take part in the novelty of a new payment form, while others believe cryptocurrency is the way of the future. A bullish perspective on the future of crypto was behind Tesla’s recent decision to begin offering the option to pay with Bitcoin, although the company declared it would stop accepting Bitcoin payments for cars last month, citing concerns about its environmental impact.
There may be a future in which digital currencies become more commonplace forms of payments, but for the average American crypto investor considering paying for groceries in crypto, “I think we are not there yet,” says Danial.