How To

The Wallet Diet: Using Your Smartphone to Lighten the Load in Your Pocket

fat wallet

It’s still January, and I’ve already made progress on one of my financial New Year’s resolutions: lighten my wallet. While I have made some progress, it’s just not very much progress.

The story began last year. I was carrying a cheap leather bifold wallet, and it had become tattered and frayed and Dickensian. So I decided I needed a new wallet.

Down my street there’s a store with a table out front selling $10 wallets similar to the one I wore out, but somehow I got the idea that it was time to buy myself a sturdy grownup wallet.

So I splurged on a handsome coffee brown number from Saddleback Leather. With shipping, it cost $50, and it came with a 100-year warranty and loads of five-star reviews.

The wallet seems to be as apocalypse-proof as its manufacturer claims, and even though I bought the small size, it’s a beast.

Naturally, there’s a tradeoff between durability and svelteness. Before the leather broke in, merely cramming a few bills into the thing took Hulk Hogan strength.

Sure, it’s a great piece of workmanship, but as I hauled the beast out of my pocket the other day, I thought, what am I doing? I don’t want to carry a fat wallet for the next hundred years. I’m using this heirloom-quality piece to carry around a whole bunch of stuff that, in principle, shouldn’t take up any space at all.

My goal for 2013, then, is to shrink my wallet down so far that it’s practically two-dimensional. I know a lot of you readers are way ahead of me on this, and I’d love to hear about your strategies.

The wallet diet

For the most part, we use our wallets to carry pieces of information, not irreplaceable mementos. Your credit card, for example, is a big hunk of plastic storing one key piece of information: your account number.

Yes, there’s other information displayed on the card, but none of it is necessary to the transaction, because it can just be looked up on the other end.

I carry my wallet in my right front pocket. (Hmm, do pickpockets read personal finance blogs?) In my left front pocket I carry a device designed to store, send, and receive information: my smartphone.

I’ve already migrated some information that would have previous lived in my wallet onto my smartphone—photos of my daughter, for example.

Aside from convenience and not creating an unsightly pocket bulge, keeping vital information on my phone offers a major advantage in the case of loss or theft: instead of having to replace a stack of cards, I’d replace a single phone and restore my information from an online backup service.

If my information were well protected by a passcode, I probably wouldn’t even need to report the loss to my credit card issuers, and most phones can be remotely wiped clean, so the thief gets my expensive toy, but not my Visa.

Judging by the heft of my wallet, however, I have a long way to go before joining the virtual age. I did a wallet inventory and found that my wallet contained 17 items in seven categories.

How many could migrate to my phone? Let’s figure it out. Here are the categories:

Cash

I don’t carry much cash, but I like to keep a few $1 bills on hand for tipping at coffee places and cheap restaurants.

Eventually, this function will get rolled into one of the services below, but for now, I don’t see a way around carrying a few greenbacks.

Payment cards

My wallet contains four payment cards: three debit and one credit.

This is mostly down to the fact that I have too many bank accounts, but since I can instantly transfer between most of them online and rarely use the credit card except for big-ticket purchases made from my couch, I’m going to shelve two of the cards and see how it goes.

As for paying using my phone, we’re a long way from a standardized solution. Recently, however, I had an experience that felt like the way it should work. On Christmas, I received an email from a friend who owns a bakery (yes, this is the best kind of friend to have).

The email contained a gift card, which I loaded into an app on my phone. The next time I went into the bakery, my phone told them I was in the shop, and my face popped up on their iPad.

I was able to pay with my gift card and charge the remainder to my debit card, all without taking anything out of my pocket.

Yes, there are privacy concerns here, but if I don’t want the bakery to know every time I walk by and don’t go inside (unlikely, but this is hypothetical), I can just turn off the app’s “geofence” and use the app manually.

This worked great at the bakery, but the problem is, there are a bunch of competing virtual wallet apps; many of them still have kinks to work out and a lot of businesses don’t support any of them yet.

Google, Intuit (disclosure: Mint.com is owned by Intuit), and Square are leading the way in this emerging industry, but right now, it is just that — emerging.

Stay tuned though. Virtual wallet apps are going to keep getting better.

Loyalty and gift cards

What about non-virtual plastic gift cards? These can sometimes be loaded onto a phone.

Every month I recharge a gift card at the local tea cafe where I do most of my writing. Recently I discovered that I could load that card into an app called CardStar (iPhone or Android, free).

It also works with library cards and supermarket loyalty cards, but my phone screen seems to be incompatible with the scanners at my local supermarket, so I just punch in my phone number.

To pay at the tea place, I still have to take my phone out of my pocket, launch the app, and hand it to the cashier, but I find that it’s faster than fumbling for a plastic card, and the employees are young people who don’t bat an eye when a customer wants to do something weird with their phone.

This is similar to the system used by Starbucks, which allows you to virtualize your gift cards using their app or Apple’s Passbook app.

I have a Starbucks card with a few dollars on it, so I tried loading it into Passbook, which now squawks at me every time I pass a Starbucks. And here in Seattle, that’s about every ten feet.

This is not exactly what I had in mind.

What about “buy ten, get one free” stamp cards? I have one for my local pizza place, one for the barbershop, and one for my favorite ramen noodle joint. The ramen place, it turns out, supports an app called Stampt (iPhone or Android, free).

Instead of rubber-stamping your card after lunch, the cashier holds out a business card with a QR code on it for you to scan using the app. It’s fast and works great.

For the pizza place and the barbershop, I think I’m just going to finish out my existing cards and then wait until they get with the future.

Coupons

I’ve been carrying a “$5 off a $25 purchase” coupon for my favorite supermarket in my wallet for over a month. Since then, I’ve been to the store five times. Four times, I’ve spent under $25. The other time, I forgot to use the coupon.

Seriously, I should just not bother with paper coupons.

Health insurance cards

This is a conundrum. I carry my own insurance card and my daughter’s. Carrying her card is silly, because she’s usually at school (which has her info on file) or at home.

I’m likely to be the one taking her to her checkups, but they don’t actually ask for the card at checkups. So that one is going in the file.

As for my card, I figure it’s good to keep it on me in case I show up at a hospital unconscious. But I’m not sure whether this is prudent or just superstitious. You can find experts on both sides.

I could easily put my insurance info on my phone, but it’s protected by a passcode. I feel like I’m inventing the MedicAlert bracelet here.

Transportation cards

I use two of these. One is my Seattle transit card, and there’s no substitute. Seattle buses and trains have card readers that look for a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in the transit card.

Until my phone supports near-field communication (NFC) or comparable technology, it’s not going to work for riding the bus—and I’m not sure I want to be whipping out my phone every time I get on the bus, anyway.

I also carry a card for Zipcar, the car-sharing service. It locks and unlocks the car. It turns out the Zipcar app does the same thing. Goodbye, Zipcard!

ID

Finally, there’s my driver license. Since I rarely drive and never write checks, it doesn’t come out very often, but it’s probably smart to carry one piece of ID that doesn’t require a passcode, right?

The final tally

I’m relieving my wallet of one gift card, two payment cards, one coupon, one insurance card, one transportation card, and one, soon-to-be three, loyalty cards. Let’s call that nine items in total, taking me from 17 items to 8, which is a 53% reduction.

That’s pretty good, but I’ll bet some of you can do better, and I’d like to hear about it.

As for me, I’m a few cards away from not needing this wallet, and then I can regift it to some sucker who will actually appreciate it.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.