the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Morality of the Lost Wallet

Let’s imagine I’m walking down the block and I find a wallet on the ground.  I open it up.  Inside, I see a driver’s license with an address.  The wallet also contains $5000 dollars. 

What am I going to do? 

I’m going to contact this person and return the wallet, with the money still inside.  I’m not even going to think about keeping the money for myself. 

I know this is the right thing to do.  But why?  Cause my mother taught me to do this?  What does she know?!  She used to serve me margarine with all that trans-fat rather than butter?

This is an example of the type of sh*t you think about when you go to therapy too much and you start becoming f*cked up.  

Here’s are my current thoughts on this important “wallet” matter.  If I was religious, I wouldn’t keep the money because I would be afraid of sinning.  God would see me taking the money, shaking his head in disappointment.  I might even get karma kicking me in the ass.

But I don’t believe in any of that.  If I took the money, NO ONE would know, NOTHING BAD WOULD HAPPEN TO ME, and I would have 5000 bucks to live it up in Paris for four days, drinking champagne with lanky French fashion models.

Of course, the reason I don’t take the money is that if I did, I would feel like a SCHMUCK. This feeling is not based on any scientific fact.  It is based on some religious system of morality, of right and wrong.  And a morality without any real consequences. 

You only live once.  You need to grab what you can in life.  So, who’s the bigger schmuck?  The guy who gives the money back and gets nothing in return?  Or the guy who keeps the money, goes to Paris, has a naked French model dance for him in his hotel room, writes a terrific blog post about his experience, and then wins a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Paris on 5000 Dollars.”

Two years ago on Citizen of the Month:  Neilochka Sez:  Boycott the Fashion Industry


  1. the slackmistress

    $5000 isn’t going to get you far in Paris. But you could live it up in Long Island!

  2. Rhea

    I would be tempted to take the money but I realize that I would never be able to live with myself afterward. Now, on the other hand, I knew someone once who found a wad — and I mean wad — of bills on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. Probably some drug dealer’s loot. And she called the police. Cripes, I would never return anonymous, illicit money, ill-begotten. I mean, we have to have our values.

  3. Neil

    Slack — Long Island! Ugh. I’m definitely giving it back now. That’s like just going back home.

  4. V-Grrrl

    What if the wallet belongs to a blogger? You might be the subject of someone else’s blog post on A**holes in America AND your lack of decency would make you the topic of someone else’s therapy session.

    And, Neil, you have the religious angle all wrong. A religious person finds a wallet and thinks, “This is a SIGN from God I was meant to go fornicate with models in Paris! That way I’ll know just how fortunate I am to be forgiven of my sins. Besides, this wallet was lost by a gay drug dealer and his sins are worse than mind. He doesn’t deserve that money! After all, by fornicating with models, I establish a rapport and have a unique opportunity to tell them that God loves them, and I’m his agent here on earth. Models LOVE agents!!! It’s a win-win situation!”

  5. Dagny

    Don’t ask me. I’m the one who returned the $20 to the bank when the ATM gave me too much money.

  6. Backpacking Dad

    What if inside the wallet was a “note to self” that read: “put mom-and-pop store on the corner out of business so that a Jaguar dealership can be built and I can continue to rake in the millions I do every year”?

    I….I think I take the money, and then plant the wallet at the scene of some embarassing sexual crime.

    And I think I don’t feel like a schuck at all for doing it.

    So if you do find a wallet, I suggest Googling the hell out of the person who owns it :}

    Ah, moral relativism….I love thee only on the internets.

  7. John

    “Or the guy who keeps the money, goes to Paris, has a naked French model dance for him in his hotel room, writes a terrific blog post about his experience, and then wins a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Paris on 5000 Dollars.”

    No. The guy keeps the money, goes to Paris, has sex with French model, contracts VD, his dick falls off, is too humiliated to write a blog post about being a dickless dope, dies, and 5K is almost enough to buy his immoral ass a pine box. And he still has hell to look forward to.

  8. Joe Crawford

    Pfft. You’re operating under the delusion that God and or Religion are the source of morality. They need not exist. Altruistic human behavior is adaptive. Google for stuff like “biological basis of morality” or “scientific basis of ethics” and there’s lots of writings out there on the tension of humans who survive by operating in their own best interest but also by behaving in a manner which is cohesive in the group.

    Here’s one: The Light of Reason: Evolutionary Psychology and Ethics.

    You return the wallet out of a notion that other people would do the same, and it’s a better world to do so. You’re a moral person who is not completely selfish.

    That’s my theory, anyway.

    Also, therapy doesn’t make you fucked up. It shines light on the non-functioning engine (psyche) that is fucked up. It shows you the parts that don’t work very well. Then when you restart the engine you have a chance to choose behavior that is less fucked up. Can you tell I got a lot out of therapy over the years? 🙂

  9. Arjewtino

    The worst thing is that you don’t take the money and get it back to the owner but then you can’t brag about it because THAT’LL make you look morally superior.

    That said, I returned a wallet I found last year on the street that had $10 and an AARP card.

  10. Memarie Lane

    I couldn’t take it, I’d suppose it was money collected for a fundraiser to help crippled children or something. As much as I could use it, I’d definitely have to turn it in.

  11. melanie

    I have NO theory. Its a curse. I always think of that scene in its a wonderful life when Uncle Billy loses the deposit money and Potter decides its OK to f*ck the building and loan.

    I found a wallet once and got a ticket from a cop as I was returning it to the lady who lost it. What is your theory about that? I should have left it in the street for some homeless person to return or something.

    money sucks. give it back. but have a really great “suck up” story for the soul that lost the wallet.

  12. Memarie Lane

    Oh as to the pp, there is a way to get around that. Before turning the money in you write a post about it, debating the morality of the situation. Do I return this money, which may well belong to a drug dealer who’s going to spend it on a pimp cup and a new set of grillz, or do I use it to fund my children’s education?

    And THEN you turn it in, and of course you’d HAVE to write about it because everyone would want to know what you’d decided to do.

  13. Neil

    But serious… which would make the better blog post? The post about me giving back the money, blah blah blah… I am so nice… or how I went to Paris for the weekend and slept with two French models… with videos on YouTube of the experience! We’re talking about hits here… and readers coming from Digg…

  14. Danny

    I agree with Joe Crawford. You return the money because YOU would know that you don’t want to live in a world where everyone is just trying to grab things for themselves. I don’t think it’s religion or the fear of God that makes us do the right thing in the end, it’s the desire to live in a community that we find inspiring, kind, and life-affirming, even if there are plenty of examples where that’s not the case.

    I’m not saying there isn’t some guilt involved in the action, but it’s the good kind of guilt. For all you know that was the life savings someone had just taken out of the bank to pay for his kid’s surgery. We SHOULD feel guilty for taking what isn’t ours. I know you were just playing with this idea, you’d never keep that money in a million years! And I know you don’t really believe that the guy who gives the money back “gets nothing in return.”

    In the 1970s I was in New York with my mom and she lost her wallet containing a lot of cash and all her IDs and credit cards. Late that night, she got a call in our hotel room from a student at Columbia who found the wallet, found a name of someone in Chicago in it, called information to get that person’s number, and then found out where my mom was staying in New York. The next morning we took the subway up to Columbia to retrieve it and all the money was there even though this guy was a typical starving student. I can’t tell you what a life-affirming experience that was for all of us!

    P.S. Naked French models are overrated…

  15. Kyra

    I just know that it would hurt me to lose my wallet with that money in it, so I could easily imagine what that person would be going through, and I would give it back 100% intact and expect nothing in return. No religious anything, just respect for another human being who is probably having a heart attack once they realize they lost their wallet.

  16. miguelina

    “You only live once.” That’s exactly why you return the money.

  17. lizardek

    Who carries $5000 in cash in their wallet?! *small, obviously naive boggle*

  18. Nat

    Pretty sure French models snap in half if you try to have your way with them.

    I love Danny’s answer. I have nothing to add to it.

  19. psychomom

    You can keep the cash, just return my license, credit cards and pictures of my kids which are worth more than money.

    I tend to turn found stuff over the proper authorities hoping others do the same and I have received a reward before for finding someone’s lost German Sheppard Dog.

    I like the moto, Do unto others…..

  20. stacy

    Hell yes you take the money.

  21. Five Husbands

    Neilochka – at the risk of being indelicate – you don’t need a hug, you need, well ummm, you know, you need to get laid.

  22. Porter

    You keep the cash and return the wallet. The schmuck is the guy who walks around with five grand in cash. You have returned his wallet (saving him from a horrible trip to the DMV) and taught him a valuable lesson.

  23. Neil

    Five Husbands — I like your directness. Why do you think I was going to Paris with the 5000 bucks? To go to the Louvre?!

  24. Joe Crawford

    More food for thought, but with a Stradivarius and diamonds?

  25. Neil

    Joe — Interesting article. Thanks. Still not sure…

  26. Joe Crawford


    Regardless of the existence or non-existence of God I am not against posts about wanton French babes.

  27. HeyJoe

    For $5,000 you can hug this.

    Quite a dilemma. I think because there is identification, I would track down the owner and then kill him for putting me through such an ethical ordeal.

  28. Caron

    I didn’t know I’d dropped my wallet in Brooklyn until a guy named Tom left me a message saying he’d found it, called my credit card company, and was on his way to mail it back.

    I can’t imagine how tainted my trip would have been with a different outcome. There was only $28 in my billfold, but all the other notes and scraps and little bits of memories I carry around are priceless.

    I made him a quilt, and sent him all the cash in the billfold.

  29. Lynda

    Well there is always the finders keepers, losers weepers philosophy. Though the optimist in me would think that anyone would return the money, I thinks sadly, it isn’t true in a lot of cases.

  30. marisa

    Oh my gosh your blog posts generate fantastic comments! I love lurking around here, getting witty by osmosis with you and your readers. If it were a nice wallet, with the hummer SUV dealership contact card in there, then I’d keep the money. Well, I like the idea of Googling the person’s name first. Ah, who am I kidding ~ I’d be too scared of the karma kick-back. I’d return the money, hopefully it would be some billionaire who would give me twice the amount as a reward for being so honest.

  31. Bec

    The temptation would be to pocket it and maybe my mind would linger over the possibility for a shiny moment but I’d have to do the right thing in the end. Have to.

  32. Whit

    I wouldn’t think twice about returning it. Now $5000 on the ground in small, unmarked bills? That I would have to think about.

  33. wendy

    Be the change you want to see in the world..ghandi

    Even harder…be that change when no one is looking…you’de never get caught.

    Aren’t french girls too skinny for your liking?

    Where is shakira from?

  34. Jenn

    arrgh. I would probably pick up the wallet and PLAN on sending it back to the owner and then PROCRASTINATE so long I’d end up in Hell anyway!

  35. JoLynn

    Hmmm…since I’m a God loving woman I’d give the money back.

  36. Miss Syl

    Being a believer in the butterfly effect, I think that the best course of action is going with the gut, without thinking too hard about why the gut is telling you to do it. You are part of a bigger picture and can’t say for sure the eventual benefits or drawbacks of a particular choice–for you or others. But while not being able to see the consequences of either, you are able to know what helps you sleep most soundly.

    Sound sleep is good.

    And I also agree with Joe.

  37. Dagny

    Wendy, Shakira is from Columbia.

  38. therapydoc

    Why does one shmuck have to be bigger than the other. So competitive.

    The other day I found $11 on the floor in the post office. I announced it (this is the proper thing to do, you say, Did anyone lose anything?)

    Two people said, I did!

    One guy was clearly making it up as he went along, Uh, was it a $20? I think I lost a $20.

    Then this very disorganized woman from another country, maybe Viet Nam, said, I lost money. A ten and a one.

    Gevaldik. You know you wouldn’t miss that?

  39. Jane

    I found a wallet belonging to a California college student, with a Montana ID, at a Utah rest stop. There was over $200 in it, and no phone number. I live in MN.

    It took me a couple of hours to track down a relative of hers in Montana and get the girl’s phone number. She didn’t sound excited or even very happy to hear from me when she called back two days later. Okay, I thought, not everybody is emotive.

    I tell her I’ll send her wallet back in a priority mail box. I did, and it cost me almost $6.

    A couple of weeks went by. No call to say she’d received it, no thank you note (are Jews the only people left that write thank you notes? Okay, I guess that’s a different subject) no word at all. Anyway, I finally call her again, and she accuses me of STEALING her wallet! WTF??!?!??!?!?

    It was a surreal experience. She actually believed that I somehow stole her wallet from her somewhere on the road, and then got a guilty conscience and returned it. WEIRD!

    So really. Now I don’t know if I would or wouldn’t. Okay, I would. But I’d feel bitter about it!

  40. Neil

    Jane — that is a infuriating story. I would just hate humanity after that!

  41. Jeannette

    Id keep the money. I have no morals. Im too young for that shit.

  42. Anonymous City Girl

    Empathy would be my motivator to return the wallet. Not some overwhelming guilt or fear of karma or G-d, but the simple thought, “what if it lost my wallet?”

  43. Anonymous City Girl

    Jane – what a sad life that woman must have.

  44. Jane

    The funny-peculiar thing is that something very similar happened to my daughter a couple of years later. She found a woman’s organizer in a mall parking lot. It had a few bucks in it, and her ID. Just like I did, Lis tracked the woman down. The woman railed at her for not walking back to the mall and giving it to security, then asked if the money was still in it, then insisted that Lis drive to a town 15 miles away and drop it off at the police station, because it was somehow Lis’s fault for not returning the book to the mall.

    Oy. Is it any wonder that sometimes it’s easier to like people in theory but not so much in real life?

  45. mp

    When I lose my imaginary wallet with $5000 in it..I’m going to you first to find it.

  46. melanie

    hey neil, can i borrow 5000?

    yea. i want a moped.

  47. Atomic Bombshell

    This is why I think Psychology is a religion in itself, or at least many times it rides the line in functioning like one.

  48. Randi Jenkins

    So I find this wallet in the West Village where I live. Friday night. $400 in it, Social Security and Green cards, a letter written in Spanish, a few pictures of Hispanic-looking family. An ID card for a check cashing network/money order place. The address on the money order is almost illegible, but I try and try to find it on the US Post Office site and I can’t. It doesn’t exist. Won’t go to Social Security or Immigration. What if he gets deported or something? I think he really needs the money; probably just cashed his paycheck. I think he’s a laborer on my street because it was just dug up again. I don’t want the money. I want to find him. HOW DO I DO THIS?

  49. Dave

    Im not returning anything

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