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Wallets Are Dead! Long Live Wallets!

We live in a world where cash and wallets are increasingly unnecessary. So why do I miss it so much?

Photo composition of leather wallet with R.I.P., halo and angel wings
PaulSpella/Getty Images

I recently put my wallet through the wash. Fishing it from a pocket, I was dismayed to find a sodden mess — the leather mottled, whatever paper scraps were contained within on the verge of pulp. The wallet was nothing special, some old, inexpensive J.Crew billfold past its prime in looks but perfectly, gently conformed to my body. 

I made a mental note to replace it. But a funny thing happened: I kept forgetting. 

In my everyday life, my iPhone seemed to suffice. I paid for stuff via the “Wallet,” I bought train tickets via app, I flashed barcodes under readers to get supermarket discounts and library books. The only thing missing was my driver’s license — not that I’m getting carded these days. As yet more states enroll in Apple’s program to add state-issued IDs to the Wallet app, the physical thing will be less vital.

On the one hand, it felt refreshingly liberating. The wallet could be, at times, a burden both physical and mental. On drives or flights, I’d taken to removing it, to avoid the subtle spinal displacement that radiated upward from my back pocket. And what was in there? A jumbled flotsam of folded dry cleaning receipts, useless ATM slips, and a trove of stamped loyalty cards for places I rarely went to enough to hit the buy-10-get-one-free threshold. 

And cash, of course, though not always. Lately, I’d pretty much been going without greenbacks. Cash had come to seem onerous; unlike my virtual dollars, floating in the ether, you had to go get cash, which had the annoying tendency to boil down to ever more useless coins (which had to be gathered and funneled into some Coinstar machine to simply be transmuted back into credit). Cash now seemed some black-market currency, some quasi-legal tender used to grease wheels.

But I felt that empty space in my pocket. I’d been carrying a wallet for the past four decades, and it seemed to have merged into my soul. 

In a short story called, appropriately, “The Wallet,” John Updike writes of a man who loses his billfold. “It was my wallet,” the character tells his wife. “Everything is in it. Everything. Without that wallet, I’m nothing.” 

Updike continues: “His tongue had outraced his brain, but once he said it he realized this to be true: without the wallet he was a phantom, living in a house without walls, worse than a caveman open to the wind and saber-toothed tigers.” 

As a child, I’d marveled at my father’s wallet, typically left on the kitchen counter, next to a set of keys. Shiny and black, it bulged like the ticket book of a traffic cop. I’d riff through its contents with rapt fascination: the wad of cash, in denominations I’d rarely laid hands on; the gas station credit cards (remember those?); family photos; business cards bent at the corners; maybe a rogue S&H Green Stamp or two. Each thing was trivial, but somehow it all added up to the measure of the man.

In high school, when I got my driver’s license and a job, I suddenly had things to put in my own wallet, a blue nylon Ocean Pacific trifold (it was the 1980s). Trying to bolster my own credentials toward adulthood, I put more things in there than I needed to. What, I was going to have to flash my Social Security card at someone? About as likely as the need for a condom.

Throughout the subsequent years, there’d be a moment when my wallet suddenly seemed sad and worn and, with great ceremony, I’d replace it. This was a stock-taking moment, in which I filtered out now-irrelevant bits of my past. I’d even report the credit cards lost so I could have shiny new ones to occupy the virgin slots.

In a digital age, the physical wallet, with its little tokens and badges of one’s life, is increasingly becoming a relic in our lives. Many men have since shifted to “minimalist” wallets, little leather sleeves designed to hold a few cards and a folded-up bill or two. But these seem wanting to me; too insubstantial to hold much, but still something to carry, something to awkwardly bundle with your phone, something to lose. I’d rather have all or nothing.

I did buy a replacement wallet, by the way. I just haven’t filled it yet.