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Mourn the death of the wallet – it holds memories as well as money

Let’s start with a quick quiz that will establish, once and for all, whether you are old. I’m not interested in your age in actual years; this is about your age in pop cultural years. Which are a bit like dog years, in that you can go from prime-of-life to past-it really scarily fast.

Question one: you are paying for a flat white on your way to work. Do you (a) count out £2.10 in coins, enjoying the familiar small but tangible sense of satisfaction at getting rid of your coppers, or (b) tap your contactless debit card against the reader?

Question two: have you got a first-class stamp I could borrow, by any chance? Is the answer (a) yes, hang on a mo, I’ve got a book of six somewhere – look, here it is, it was hiding behind my National Trust membership card or (b) a stamp? For what? Hey, shall I download the Paperless Post app for you?

If you answered (a) to both of the above then you, like me, are officially old.

To take your mind off it, try this one: what do the following items have in common? Money, photos of your boyfriend/dog/baby, public transport pass, train and plane tickets, gym timetable, the phone number of that good plumber your colleague passed on, shopping list for the way home, a recipe clipping from a magazine. The answer? These are things that were once essential to carry about your person, now made obsolete by two physical objects – a bank card and a smartphone – which take up less space.

Contactless payment means carry cashing cash is not necessary.
Photograph: Alamy

The result of all this is that the wallet, that great talisman of adult life, is heading for extinction. As a day-to-day essential, it will die off with the generation who read print newspapers. Most of us, as children, played shops with Fisher Price tills, counting out the plastic coins and swapping them for plastic tomatoes. And we have grown up, and continued to do real shopping, in almost exactly the same way. But that kind of shopping – where you hand over notes and count out change in return – now happens only in the most minor of our retail encounters. Buying a bar of chocolate or a pint of milk, from a cornershop or a train station kiosk. At the shops where you spend any real money, that money is increasingly abstracted. And this is more and more true, the higher up the scale you go. At the most cutting-edge retail flagships – Victoria Beckham on Dover Street, say, or Burberry on Regent Street – you don’t go and stand at any kind of till, when you decide to pay. The staff are equipped with iPads which they can whip out and use to take your payment while you relax on a sofa.

Which is nothing more or less than excellent service, if you have the money. But across society, the abstraction of the idea of cash – the tap of contactless payments, which happen in less time than it takes your brain to compute the fact that you have just spent money – makes me uneasy. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, I don’t know. But earning money isn’t quick or easy, for most of us. Isn’t it a bit weird that spending it, on the other hand, should happen in half a blink of an eye? Doesn’t a wallet – that time-honoured Friday-night feeling of pleasing, promising fatness; the flipside of a lean day – represent something that matters?

But I’ll leave the economics to the experts. What bothers me about the death of the wallet is the change it represents in our physical environment. Everything about the look and feel of a wallet – the nooks and crannies, the way the fastenings and materials wear and sag and loosen with age, the diverse microclimate of plastic and paper and gold and silver, of braille-printed numbers and faded passport photos, of handwritten phone numbers and printed cinema tickets – is the very opposite of what our world is becoming. The opposite of a wallet is a smartphone, or a tablet. The rounded edges, cool glass, smooth and unknowable as a pebble. Instead of rustling through pieces of paper and peering into corners, we swipe the pads of our fingers left and right. No corners, no papercuts, no memories ambushing you as a forgotten restaurant card turns up like a lucky penny. No more counting out coppers; instead, Candy Crush. Show your wallet – if you still have one – some love, in 2015. It may not be here much longer.

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