Off the electronic-money grid

It all happened before I even realized I’d been robbed.

By the time the credit company called me, someone had already charged several hundred dollars on one of my cards. And the voice on the other end of the phone wanted to ask me about the slew of charges that had been racked up in just a two-hour period.

There was the $35 charge at a gas station, $50 dropped at a “novelty” shop and not one but two $100 cash withdrawals.

No, no, no, there must be a mistake, I said, reaching to retrieve my wallet from my purse.

But, of course, it was gone. I knew that even as I ransacked my bag, that the familiar turquoise zip wallet with its whimsical embroidered birds had already flown the coop.

Perhaps the intensity of the upheaval in my life that followed shouldn’t have surprised me, but within hours my life had turned into a mind-numbing exercise as I racked my memory, trying to remember exactly what it was that I needed to exist on a day-by-day basis.

I shut down all my cards and ordered new ones. I filed a police report and filled out fraud forms. I tried, furiously, to figure out exactly where my wallet left my possession.

Now, in the weeks since, I’ve also struggled to recall exactly what I’ve lost. It’s like running down a never-ending mental checklist that’s updated at irritatingly inconvenient moments such as the one at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op, where, trying to pay for groceries, I searched for my member card, only to realize that it’s yet another item that still needs replacing.

It’s annoying but also eye opening: how much my ability to operate was tied up in that wallet.

I’ve wondered why, exactly, I kept so much in it. My husband used to urge me to pare it down, staring at my array of cards and receipts with dismay. Now, even as he sympathized, he also distilled the essence of the crisis with diamond-cut clarity.

“You have no cash, you have no credit cards, you have no driver’s license—I own you,” he said jokingly.

At least, I think he was joking—but, still, there’s some truth to the comment.

Without my driver’s license and that thin but mighty collection of plastic (debit cards and credit cards, health-insurance and towing cards, frequent-shopper and rewards cards), it suddenly felt as though my life had reverted to something very primitive—at least by 21st-century standards.

For a week or so I walked around armed only with a tiny bifold that carried just an interim paper ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles and a thin cache of cash.

That money seemed like the strangest thing. It’s not that I don’t normally carry cash—indeed, the thief relieved me of $50—but I’m not used to walking into a bank to get it, and I’m certainly not used to having to think that carefully about every purchase I make.

It became something of a game: Do I have enough money to get through the week—the day, even? When will I need to go to the bank again, and how long can I make this last before I have to repeat the cycle anew?

If I forced myself to live like this every day, I’d be a much richer person for it.

My life is almost back to normal again. I have a new wallet. I have new cards and I have a new, grudging appreciation for what it means to live life off the electronic-money grid: primitive, yes—but somehow much more cost-effective and rewarding in its simplicity.