I wrote in August 2010 (nine years ago!) about a product called the “money-band,” which was a cutting-edge elastic fastener (OK—household rubber band) marketed for the use of replacing the traditional bi or trifold wallet. I was enamored at the time by the idea of minimalism—and I guess I still am, though that word no longer crosses my mind1—and it was enlightening for me to see an object that so demonstrably instantiated that “Hey—there are other ways to go about this 78.5-year trek. You’ve been doing it all wrong. Wake up.”
The money-band in particular was compelling for two reasons:
- It was almost nothing—insubstantial, a relative filament—yet it served the same function as a standard wallet, which is to hold identification and money. Wallets can be elaborate. This was not. It blared the idea of doing the same (or more, or better) with less.
- It was an evidential case of form governing function. Being so limited, it demanded a reassessment of what it meant to be a “wallet”—boundaries, working parameters, function—and from the there, it could only take shape as a more honed tool.
To elaborate some on that second point, my original money-band held three items: a debit card, my driver’s license, and around $20 in cash. That’s all. It could have held more, but not much more, and what else did I need? If I’d be able to navigate my way through 24 hours with nothing else on me, I was set. This was how I defined its core function. And I could do that with ID and cash. Common wallet-dwellers like receipts, rewards cards, photographs, and change—even at the time, in 2010—were superfluous and have since been obsolesced by digital movements of the past decade. The modern phone holds all of those items, and more. Which means: The bare-bones wallet is even more pertinent today. It was forward-thinking. It still probably is. Constraint can often force coherency, and paring down the wallet was invaluable exercise in critical thought that I still reach back to today.
I ditched the money-band in 2012 (after my stock of four overstretched) for a pair of standard, size #64 rubber bands chained together (how-to here). $7—the then going price—was exorbitant for a set of money-bands, and I had a full box of #64s idling in my filing cabinet. The chained RBs functioned almost as well. This wallet was finicky, though, with the two bands flopping every whichaway as I unfastened it. It was also more bulky and unsightly. Streamlined it was not. I used v2.0 for about five years too long, then one day became fed up with the two-strap system and sought out a single-band replacement, akin to the money-band. I landed on Alliance Pale Crepe Gold, size #82, and it’s a delight.
These bands supersede the money-band in all ways I consider important. They retain their elasticity longer, the color is agreeably neutral, and the dimensions are about perfect, for me a least. If you carry a lot more in your wallet, you may need to size up in diameter.
The other functional change I made was in the way I carry cash. I previously wrapped my ~$20 in half around my cards. This was a flawed approach because it meant that I had to futz around with the cash each time I wanted to access my debit or credit card to pay for anything. And I used my cards to pay for virtually everything. So: The cash was in the way. It was a regular obstruction.
After realizing this, I folded my cash in half, twice (i.e., in fourth) (using this paper folder, which I adore) and stored it sandwiched between my cards. It was now out of the way, but still available, and the wallet became considerably smoother to operate. Despite being ostensibly simple, there is minutiae to this thing!
Contents-wise, 2010 vs. 2019:
- debit card
- driver’s license
- less than $20 in cash
- credit card
- driver’s license
- library card
- ~$20 in cash
The inclusion of a library card serves as a personal subliminal reminder to continually check out books, and read. I end up seeing it almost every day, and even though this doesn’t register mindfully (viz., “I am holding my wallet which contains my library card which has eclipsed my peripheral vision…”), I could probably substantiate with data2 that I have been reading more since I started carrying my library card, and specifically since I positioned it on the outside of my wallet, in sight. (To clarify: I do not need my library card to check out materials, so I didn’t always carry it on me; in the past, I relied on my driver’s license instead.)
I switched from a debit to credit card for fraud protection. It’s a lot easier to get a fraudulent charge reversed on a credit card than a debit card, which gives me peace of mind when I’m at an unfamiliar gas station or otherwise traveling. Frankly, I assume there’s a possibility my card will be stolen each time I use it. So this decision is a precaution. Paying in cash would be another precaution, but carrying lots of cash is a liability as well.
I’ve thought about this some, and I will try not to act like I’ve figured anything out (because I haven’t; what follows is conjecture) but here’s my sense: Credit cards levy an invisible tax on consumers. You should probably avoid them. But it may be too late to do so. To expound: Credit cards bind consumers in the following way:
- Many consumers justify making purchases with credit cards (rather than cash or debit cards) because credit cards yield rewards. (For example, the Amazon card gives 3% cash back on Amazon purchases, other cards benefit travelers, etc.) In essence, consumers believe they are getting better deals by using credit cards over the alternatives. Consumer feel good—shrewd, even—about shopping this way.
- Merchants are met on the receiving end with interchange fees (let’s say 2% per credit card transaction).
- Merchants, if they are smart, raise prices across the board, because of interchange fees, by at least 2%. (In other words, they place the fee [and then some] on the consumer.) Consumers loathe surcharges, and it’s confusing to convey separate prices for credit and cash. So, to keep things simple, merchants raise prices all around.
- Consumers end up paying more (not less) by virtue of widespread credit card use. They get worse deals, even when factoring in rewards.
- At end: Credit cards virulently inflate the costs of goods and services for all who use them—and for everyone who eschews credit cards, too.
And, it should go without saying: Credit card users also expose themselves to a basket of other fees (e.g., interest fees, penalty fees, annual fees, cash-advance fees, etc.), which again outweigh the benefits the cards provide.
To play devil’s advocate and not paint credit cards in a totally cynical light: There is overhead to processing cash. A customer counting cash from their wallet and handing it to a cashier who has to make change takes time. I estimate (from standing in line with a stopwatch at supermarkets…) that such exchanges are 10–20 seconds slower than electronic ones, from start to finish. Assuming a cashier makes $15/hour, that implies an initial 4–8¢ processing fee. Later, that exchanged cash may be removed from the cash register, counted again, and transported to a bank. These actions imply further processing fees. But, still, once the money has settled, you’re probably looking at something closer to a flat processing fee than the percentage-based interchange fee. I have to wonder if it ever isn’t cheaper for a merchant to process cash.
For a high-volume merchant, though, every second matters. If electronic payments allow them to process more transactions per minute, then tolerating the interchange fees is a no-brainer. So they are fine with the levy. Convenience attracts customers. And maybe merchants don’t inflate their prices to offset interchange fees.
I don’t see any obvious ways to empower yourself as a consumer besides either
- paying with cash (even though there is rarely a discount for paying this way; it’s commendable to opt out of the system) or
- treating credit cards strictly as cash (and not the plastic casinos they are).
My reluctant advice is to use one credit card with no annual fee that yields either no rewards (if you can find one; they’re rare) or unvaried, negligible cash back. Don’t waste your time juggling multiple cards to earn rewards under specific buying conditions. I did this for a while, and it turns out I was severely misguided: The rewards I earned over a two-plus year stretch would have been nearly the same (and as paltry) if I’d elected to use any one of my three credit cards exclusively (rather than wield them selectively, as I did). So it was a waste of time to deliberate between cards on purchases. And, because each card had annual fees or one-off spending bonuses to chase, I likely justified purchases I otherwise wouldn’t have made to reach those benchmarks. (Which means, rewards included, I spent more than I would have if paying by cash. N.B.: You do not have to overspend by much to cannibalize your rewards entirely.)
I played the game, and failed. Unsurprisingly. The banks know better. Lessons learned: It’s far more productive to improve your income and/or not spend money in the first place. And watch out for anything that appears to be free. It’s too good to be true.
1 My current interests lie in efficiency and plasticity, rather than the more ascetic notion of getting by with almost nothing. (These interests do still beget neuroticism about the objects I consider worth assimilating into my routines.)
2 I won’t because it’s not that important and I forget exactly when I made this change to the wallet. I do keep track of what books I’ve read and when, though.