What's In Your Wallet?

We, as a society, are toting around a collective waste dump in our back pockets and purses. We don't think about wallets, we take them for granted and, if asked, become defensive -- about what they contain, about how they look and about their overstuffed size. But our wallets say a lot about us and our attitudes towards money.

After railing last week about being constantly besieged by ads, I started thinking about one which has implications for the organization of our personal finances and our old bugaboo, human nature.

We, as a society, are toting around a collective waste dump in our back pockets and purses. We don't think about wallets, we take them for granted and, if asked, become defensive -- about what they contain, about how they look and about their overstuffed size. As the kids say, "Wassup wit dat?"

Suze Ormond, the doyenne of pop media personal finance, once pointed out that our wallets say a lot about us and our attitudes towards money. For one thing, most of us have no idea exactly how much money we carry at any given time. (I never do, at least.) Ormond averred that the first step in getting control of your finances is to have some respect for the money that you carry. Count it every day. Keep track of it. She even suggests putting the bills in order, but that's a bit too OCD for me.

When my wife's wallet died from overeating paper and too much friction with the other inhabitants of her purse, she bought a new one. She pointed out to me that wallets are intensely personal and should never be given as a gift. (Well, not to her anyway.) I attempted nonchalance as I watched her transfer the astounding volume and array of cards, receipts, documents from the dead Queen to the new Queen. But I was compelled, nay forced, I tell you, to tell her that a surprising amount of that materiel was out of date, out of business, illegible and inappropriate to tote on a daily basis. And hadn't she complained lately about how her trapezius was bothering her from carrying her trendy Big Bag?

Now, most of you with any blissful years of marriage under your (growing) belts have already sucked in your breath in alarm at my relationship foul. Yes, I was rebuked in detail, but the point was made for our purposes. We have an emotional relationship with our wallets that too often is dysfunctional and therefore impractical, and possibly expensive.

How many of you in primary care or orthopedics have seen the skinny guy complaining of gluteal pain radiating down the back of his leg, usually on the side of his handedness? He hasn't hurt his back and he can't figure out why or how he developed sciatica. You then turn him around, eye the bulbous, disintegrating leather mass in the hip pocket of his jeans slung low over his minimal posterior on the affected area and ask him to henceforth put it in his front pocket. He gets quick relief without any intervention and voila! You are a genius.

Men have three alternatives to our denim clad friend's wallet. The first is the larger jacket pocket wallet, which is okay if you habitually wear a sport coat or suit. And even if you do, which many docs don't, what about scrubs and casual times where the pamphlet size just doesn't work?

European man-purses appeal to some as a devolution of the now quaint doctor's bag. It has enough room to allow us to avoid any painful deletions from our wallet stash and, following Parkinson's Law, fills the remaining space spontaneously with stuff you would never have thought of carrying before. After a tailor asked me if I wanted the new jacket he was fitting to have enough space to carry all of the junk I had in my old jacket's strained pockets, I tried it. It works but I would stick to carrying it in the more sophisticated parts of urban areas. And it can be a nuisance.

The last opportunity to discard the old wallet bulge for men is the time-honored money clip. A few bucks, a credit card, your license and you are good to go. If you lead a lean life and are a ruthless down-sizer, that is. Also, I don't know about you, but I have memories of the previous generation with money clips that recall a youthful vow "never to do that."

But, in desperation, I've tried money clips anyway. It works well enough, just don't tell my long-deceased Uncle Ben.

While I am reminiscing about things that I swore I would never do when I grew up, I remember when credit cards first came out and the men in my family set about acquiring as many of the new novelties as possible. Unfortunately, they would put them in those clear plastic wallet affairs that would accordion out when opened. Every family dinner became a contest of whose was longer. So that's out.

What are we left with? Take out your wallet. Go on, just do it. Look at it. Like what you see? If so, good for you and happy trails. For the rest of us, well, now would be a good time to start getting back a little bit of control in this obscure corner of our lives. No one will know things have changed, your new and/or newly ordered wallet sitting quietly in the dark in your pocket or purse. But you'll know and it will make you smile.