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Is there a disaster in your wallet?

Not everyone agrees on what we should and shouldn't carry, but it's wise to be cautious.

By Teresa Mears Jul 7, 2010 2:35PM

We've all seen the credit card commercial that asks "what's in YOUR wallet?"


It's a good question for all of us to ask ourselves from time to time, not just listing what's in our wallets but re-evaluating what should and shouldn’t be there.


LearnVest, a personal finance site for women, just came out with a list of 10 things you probably should have in your wallet. They are:

  • Your main credit card -- and only that card.
  • $25 to $50 in cash.
  • ATM/debit card.
  • Driver’s license.
  • Insurance cards, both health and auto.
  • Transportation card or bus pass.
  • Reward cards for stores you visit frequently.
  • Gift cards.
  • Membership cards.
  • Airline cards.

LearnVest advises specifically against carrying your PINs, account numbers or Social Security card. CEO Alexa von Tobel says the only other identifying information should be your name and the best way to reach you if your wallet is found. She explains in a video her reasons for these choices.

Not everyone agrees on which financial items we should and shouldn't carry. For example, I would never carry airline cards. I can't remember the last time I showed one, though I often refer to them when I make reservations online, from home. On the other hand, someone who travels frequently for business might need to keep them handy.


Amy L. Fontinelle at Personal Finance Advice advises carrying a list of emergency contacts, important medical information and an auto club card, all sensible suggestions. She advises carrying your auto registration in your wallet, something I would not do since you're more likely to have your wallet stolen than your car.


She advises against carrying business cards, thumb drives and checkbooks -- something many of us probably carry that we rarely use.

Both she and Kerry K. Taylor at Squawkfox suggest not carrying keys in your purse or wallet, because a purse thief would be able to get into your house. However, not all women's clothes have pockets. Kerry also advises against carrying business cards.


I once, perhaps unwisely, asked an armed carjacker to give me back my house key -- and he did. But one can't count on this, and a purse thief usually runs away too quickly to be able to even entertain a request.


Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar doesn't carry an ATM/debit card, something I consider essential. He writes:

There is very little fraud protection on these cards, plus they are temptations to withdraw cash that I don’t really need to withdraw. I do pack it when traveling, but when I’m local, I don’t carry one.

And how much cash is enough? Certainly you don't want to carry more than you can afford to lose, but if you prefer to pay cash when you shop, you'll need more than $50 some days. You certainly want to carry at least enough cash to buy a tank of gas or take a taxi or bus home if your car breaks down.


While a wallet thief can use your ID and personal information for identity theft, that is not the main way thieves steal data, as noted in this post at Privacy Rights. I've had my purse with ID or credit cards stolen at least three times over 33 years in two countries, and no one ever tried to use a credit card.


It's wise to be cautious, but you don't want to be so paranoid that you leave essential information at home. Home burglaries happen, too.


If you lose your wallet, there is one thing you can carry that may make it more likely you'll get it  back: baby pictures. 


Scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland, did an experiment in which they dropped wallets containing normal wallet contents (but no money) in high-traffic areas and found that 88% of those containing baby pictures were returned.


That compares with 53% of those with photos of cute puppies, 48% of those with a photo of a happy family and 28% of those with a photo of an elderly couple. The wallets without photos had the lowest rate of return. Finders returned 20% of the wallets that included a card that indicated a recent donation to charity and 15% of the control wallets.


I make it a point to clean out my purse or wallet before I travel and leave nonessential items behind. It's a good idea for all of us to periodically look at what we carry regularly and make sure those are the right things.


What's in your wallet? Keys? Cash? ATM card? Checkbook? What's your top 10 list of items to bring and items to keep out?


Who's going to add baby pictures?


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