I have shifted (most of) my wallet contents into a new minimalist wallet.

After seriously considering the Ion minimalist wallet, I ended up going with the Travelambo minimalist wallet. It was one-sixth the cost—cheap enough that I figured I could try it as an experiment, even if I ended up not liking it.

Mainly, though, I went with it because it has a transparent window for an ID card on the outside of the wallet. I flash my i-card as a bus pass multiple times per week, and up to now I’ve had to open up my wallet every time to display the card.

I’m looking forward to not having to do that just to catch the bus.

ID-window side of new wallet

I think I like it. I’ve had to eject three of the cards I’d been carrying (AAA, AARP, FOID), but I haven’t needed to show any of them in a long time (and I have the AAA card on my phone if necessary). My library card and health insurance card are in the pocket behind my ID cards. My credit cards are in pockets on the other side:

Credit-card side of new wallet

So far it’s been pretty satisfactory. I’ll update if I end up being especially delighted or disappointed.

I am soon going to have to buy a new wallet. Before I do, I thought I should see if I can’t slim down what I carry, with an eye toward fitting things into one of those modern, minimalist wallets. (I have long been jealous of the folks who can get by with one.)

With that in mind, I thought I’d do a bit of an inventory of my wallet. This post is basically me thinking out loud about what I might be able to slim down.

My current wallet has a large currency pocket. I carry my cash there. I also stick receipts in here when I charge something on a credit card. Many minimalist wallets have a money clip instead, which means basically that cash stays outside the wallet. In theory I suppose that lets the wallet itself be smaller, but the clip mechanism is going to take up as much room as the money anyway, so I don’t see how you end up ahead of the game this way.

There’s an ID pocket with transparent cover. I keep my drivers license here, and in front of it I have my University of Illinois ID card. (It gets top billing because it doubles as a bus pass, so I am constantly flashing it to bus drivers. The clear transparent pocket cover is very handy for that.)

There are three overlapping pockets for cards the size of a credit card, and it is here that I feel a need for some slimming down.

The card pockets contain:

  1. Discover card My main credit card. I use it for most ordinary household transactions.
  2. MasterCard A backup card. I use it for places that don’t take Discover (which were common 25 years ago when I got the card, but are pretty rare now, except overseas). I also use it when (as has happened twice in the past ten years or so) my Discover card has to be canceled due to fraudulent use. Occasionally it has a cash-back deal that’s good enough that I end up prioritizing it over the Discover card for a month or three.
  3. Visa card My personal card. I use this for non-household expenses, such as lunches out, books, magazines, and toys. I also use it when I want to buy Jackie a gift.
  4. Busey Bank ATM card Actually a debit card, but I’ve never made a debit transaction. (Debit transactions are supposedly turned off, by setting the per-transaction limit to zero dollars, but that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that can be relied upon to stay where you set it.)
  5. Schucks card Loyalty card for our local grocery store. Using the card gets me a discount on fuel at the grocery store gas station.
  6. AAA card For roadside assistance.
  7. AARP card For discounts, etc.
  8. Tolono Library card Lets me check books out at the Tolono Library (my address is in the Tolono Public Library taxing district). Also works at the Champaign and Urbana libraries.
  9. Illinois FOID card Lets me buy firearms and ammunition in Illinois.
  10. Health Alliance card Lets me use my health insurance at health care providers.

I have just demoted from that set my American Airlines frequent flier card, which I don’t think I need to carry around, because I don’t think I’ve booked a flight in the past ten years when I wasn’t sitting at my computer.

In a separate pocket, also just bumped out of my my wallet were:

  • Social Security card (which I’ve been carrying for most of the past forty years, and which is showing some signs of wear).
  • Carle Clinic card (which has my clinic number—used to be important, but nowadays they go by name and date of birth).
  • Voter registration card (which in Illinois you don’t need for voting, but which lists all the precincts and districts that I’m in).

But what about all those other cards? Maybe 10 cards is not too many, but it seems like a lot.

So I think I’ll bump the following:

  • The MasterCard that I use as a backup. (More specifically, I’ll swap it in for with the Discover card when it has a cash-back bonus that makes that worthwhile.)
  • The FOID card. I haven’t presented to anyone in the past 10 years or so.
  • The AARP card (but I think I’ll keep it in my wallet for another couple of months, because I think I claimed an AARP discount on a hotel room that I’ve booked for an upcoming trip, and might need to show it for that).
  • The AAA card. I’d hate to be without it when I need roadside assistance, but thinking about that prompted me to just now install the AAA app, which has a function for displaying a card image on the phone screen. I can also keep the card in the glove box, so it would be accessible 99% of the times I’m likely to need it anyway.

That gets me down to 8 (2 ID cards plus 6 other cards), which is down in the range of many minimalist wallets (including one I have my eye on).

Okay. This has, I think, been a useful exercise. I’ll post an update if I learn at some point that I’ve made a terrible error.

I was interested to read John Scalzi’s thoughts about his wardrobe in Why I Wear What I Do, because his thinking (although not his sartorial choice) mirrors my own. Like him, I’m very aware that any disadvantage that accrues to me from my choosing to dress down is going to be minor and temporary. Like him, I’m aware that this is a privilege that doesn’t apply to everybody.

Sometimes I get hit in the face with a reminder that this issue is real, even if it mostly doesn’t apply to me. A couple instances come to mind. One was being taken for a possible bicycle thief.

Bicycle thief

A couple of summers back, my brother was visiting, and he and I were out walking in the neighborhood of my apartment complex. Our route took us past a Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurant. Outside the entrance, a bicycle had been left, unlocked, lying on the pavement.

The bicycle caught my eye because of the owner’s alternative to locking it up: He had removed the left pedal and taken it with him. I paused for a moment to think about that. It wouldn’t, I remember thinking, be effective against someone who showed up with a truck to haul off stolen bicycles, but it probably would be effective against the casual thief who simply wanted to ride a few blocks instead of walking. It’d not only be hard to ride, it would be hard even to mount—most people stand on the left pedal as they swing their right leg over the seat. It was a clever minimalist solution, that I wanted to stash in my brain for possible future use, if I needed to leave my bike unattended briefly and was unable to use my lock for some reason.

I’d only had a moment to think about it, when the owner came out of the restaurant, saw me looking at his bike, and began cursing me as a someone who was contemplating theft.

I saw no point in engaging with the guy, so I just walked on, expressing my amusement to my brother, who pointed out that my appearance might well have made me look like a possible thief. I was dressed down—I don’t remember what I was wearing, but it was almost certainly shorts and a t-shirt, possibly ragged. More to the point, I was on foot. (Anyone who isn’t in a car probably has something wrong with them—if they’re not alcoholics who have lost their driver’s license, they’re either poor or they’re some kind of weirdo. And I had to give him that one. I am some kind of weirdo, although not the bike-stealing kind.)

The other instance springs from my habit of letting my beard grow in the winter, which I do because it keeps my face warm.

Taken for a homeless guy

Maybe three years ago, on the coldest evening of a cold winter, I was on my way home from my Esperanto group. Having gotten to the bus stop just after my usual bus home had departed, I decided to take the next bus to the station, so I could wait indoors for the next bus home.

While I was waiting for my bus, a group of volunteers from local non-profit service organizations came in offering hats, gloves, other winter gear, referrals to homeless shelters, and hot beverages. One of them, clearly taking me to be a homeless person, focused on me.

For some reason, I was unable to come up with a response. I mean, I clearly should have just told her that my cold weather ensemble was entirely up to the task, and that in any case I was wasn’t homeless and would be heading home on the next bus. But I couldn’t quite get it out. First, it took me several seconds to realize that she was talking to me in particular, and then several more seconds to understand that she really thought I was an obvious example of her target audience.

Only then did it occur to me what I looked like. It was a really cold day, so I was wearing my warmest coat:


More to the point, it was winter and I’d grown out my beard. The picture above shows me with my neatly trimmed spring beard. At the time of the incident I had grown my beard out to its full winter length, so it probably looked more like this:


So, you know, I can accept being mistaken for a homeless person.

Issue of privilege

In my case, neither of the incidents did me any harm, but either one could have. In the bicycle incident, if circumstances had been only a bit different, the police might have gotten involved. Probably not a problem for me—even dressed down, I’m a middle-aged white guy with an education and some capital—but any interaction with the police has the potential to go badly wrong.

The other incident could have been even more problematic. What if I’d missed the last bus, and decided that rather than call for help or take a taxi, I’d just walk home? That’s something I really might do, even at night, even in the cold. But a scruffy-looking guy out on foot in the bitter cold might well draw more insistent offers of help than those that had rendered me speechless. Maybe a ride to a homeless shelter. Or a psych ward.

By the way, another bit of the internal conflict that kept me from articulately assuring the social worker that I was fine and that she should go look for people who actually needed help was that I was wearing what is probably the warmest coat in the world. My heavy winter parka was designed for workers on the Alaska Pipeline. Purchased cheap when work on the pipeline wound down, it has lasted more than 30 years already, and I expect it will last the rest of my life. I was trying to come up with a polite way to say that what they had in the way of cold weather gear couldn’t possibly measure up to what I already had.

Scaliz’s post was a response to The Logic of Stupid Poor People, an excellent essay on just how subtle the trade-offs are for a poor person deciding what it’s worth spending money on. Having a keen eye for when the right status symbol will open a door that would otherwise be shut (or ensure that an interaction with the police is courteous rather than confrontational) is a third option that I failed to consider when I wrote Not Stupid—Hopeless.

By the way, I used to wear polo shirts a lot, for just the reasons that Scalzi mentions: The collar makes the shirt just dressy enough to raise you above the t-shirt wearing classes, without making it look like you’re trying too hard. At some point, I found that middle-ground was no longer working for me. If circumstances call for something nicer than a t-shirt, I’m more comfortable in a shirt that buttons all the way down the front. My 30-something self would have found that weird. Why, the past few years, I’ve even been known to wear a tie voluntarily! (For a lot of reasons, some very much related to these issues—to manipulate what people think of me when they see how I’m dressed, and to mock the fact that people think that way.)