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A slim wallet is how I learned to ditch cash

Commentary: A lowly Ziploc bag was the first step. Maybe digital driver's licenses will mean I'll have no wallet at all someday.

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Ekster Aluminum Cardholder wallet

Ekster's Aluminum Cardholder wallet partially ejects cards with the push of a button so you can grab the one you need.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Last fall, I realized my decades-old wallet strategy was due for an update.

Since I was a teenager, I'd been stuffing everything into a traditional folding wallet. But now I've made a dramatic change to the way I haul around money and cards, and I'm expecting even more radical changes to come.

I felt no need for a new approach until my circumstances changed in the fall. First, with the pandemic, I've become much more of a homebody who often goes days without needing my wallet. Second, to minimize weight and bulk on a backpacking trip, I stuffed my driver's license, health insurance card, credit card and some cash into a small Ziploc bag.

That bag was supposed to last only a few days in the wilderness. But after a couple weeks enjoying how slim that plastic bag was, I found I really didn't need most of the stuff in my wallet.  It dawned on me: I'm not going back. It's time to junk my old wallet.

There are lots of slim wallet options. I ended up with a $67 Ekster Aluminum Cardholder model that has room for six cards in its 0.3-inch thickness. Its clever push button mechanism partially ejects the cards from the enclosure so I can easily retrieve the one I need, an approach that obviates the need for space-wasting separators between cards. The company's more elaborate folding wallets are thicker, so I steered clear. For those who don't want aluminum or leather, Ekster also offers faux leather made from resin recycled from car windshields.

Several slim wallet recommendations from my colleague Justin Jaffe also caught my attention. The $35 Paperwallet Micro Wallet models are made of superlight but fairly durable Tyvek, the paperlike plastic layer you'll see wrapping houses under construction. The $89 Dango T01 Tactical Wallet's styling is too military macho for me, but its knife-equipped multitool looks useful. For anyone coming from traditional wallets, the $55 Airo Collective Stealth Wallet Razor has a more classic look.

Readers, colleagues and friends have made other recommendations, too. Among them are the Buffway minimalist wallet, a leather option that's more affordable at $13; the $60 Trayvax Ascent, which comes with a pull tab to retrieve cards within; and the $15 Jimi wallet that's actually more of a thin plastic case.

A lot of these slim wallets are made with metal or leather with foil inserts to block signals for RFID, the radio frequency identification standard used for contactless payments. You might think there's a danger criminals on street corners are stealing credit card numbers by the hundreds, but that seems like a low risk in practice. I like aluminum for its strength, thinness and softness to avoid gouging my phone screen.

Going cashless

The Ekster wallet offers a detachable elastic band to lash folded cash securely around its middle. It's a hassle to fool with the bills when paying, but I had a second revelation: I don't need to carry cash.

I just left the greenbacks at home and paid just about everywhere by credit card, debit card or a phone payment app.

There are some reasons to carry cash. Some people like it for convenience, tipping and anonymity. Some stores won't accept credit cards for small-change transactions. And there's some risk that a major network problem or hack will bring down electronic payment systems or that a bank will freeze your card. If those are your worries, go ahead and bring some bills along.

The only time I've wished for cash in more than six months was when I had to use a coin-op air pump at a gas station to inflate my car tires. Until I have a bigger problem, I'm just going to skip the cash.

I might reattach the Ekster wallet's elastic strap for my company ID badge, though. That badge is thick enough to displace two cards, and its RFID access technology won't work when it's inside an aluminum enclosure.

Smartphone wallet apps help

Another reason I find a thin wallet practical is because smartphones can step in to replace cards I leave behind. I could survive fine with just my phone on many days, with no cash and cards. I now only use wallet apps -- available both on iPhones and Android phones -- to store loyalty cards for places like supermarkets and gas stations.

And of course I can use wallet apps for purchases in many stores with contactless pay stations. I find the transactions slower and more fiddly compared to sliding a credit card into a slot, but it generally works. It might be a good way to go for a secondary credit card you use only rarely.

For a lot of quick money transfers where I once would have used cash, like splitting bills and reimbursing friends, I now use PayPal and Venmo (after disabling the baffling default setting where Venmo makes my transactions public).

Read more: The best credit cards for 2020

I've used my phones in some pretty unsophisticated ways over the years, too, with files to record frequent flyer account numbers and photos of my health and dental insurance cards.

Another way smartphones help you pare down your wallet is dumping receipts. I often use Microsoft OneDrive to create PDFs on the fly of documents I'm OK to keep in electronic form only. For company expenses, apps like Expensify let you scan receipts immediately so you don't need to stuff your wallet full of them on business trips.

Digital driver's licenses

Arguably the most important piece of plastic in my wallet is my driver's license.

It's been a while since a police officer pulled me over for speeding, and I'm old enough that bartenders no longer check if I'm at least 21 years old, but I use my driver's license all the time for other identification purposes. Maybe this pandemic will abate so I'll need it for flying in planes and sleeping in hotels again.

Ekster Aluminum Cardholder wallet

An optional elastic strap and metal plate attach cash or other extras to the outside of the Ekster Aluminum Cardholder wallet, but I leave it behind.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

I'll be honest. I didn't expect any digital replacement for my plastic driver's license anytime this decade. But it turns out lots of organizations are working on mobile driving licenses, or MDL, that live in a phone app, and several governments are evaluating the technology. Somebody checking your ID would scan a QR code on your phone screen and retrieve cryptographically signed data through a direct link.

I'm a bit leery of the concept, given the general risks that digital data can be stolen, manipulated or otherwise abused. But it's possible digital driver's licenses could actually improve privacy -- for example, by sharing your age but not your address when you're trying to buy a beer.

"We think MDL is a big win for end users in terms of privacy," Google says. It's building the technology into its Android phone software.

So who knows? Perhaps in a few years I'll be able to ditch my wallet altogether.

While we wait for that future, though, it's a good time to rethink what you need to carry in your pockets. Whether it's an aluminum Ekster, a knife-equipped Dango, Tyvek Micro Wallet, a less radical Stealth Wallet Razor or something else, the time has come for slim wallets.