On a Friday afternoon, with a book in my purse and time to kill, I treated myself to a latte at Starbucks. When I tried to pay my hairdresser two hours later, my wallet was gone.
Unlike my sympathetic hairdresser, who said I didn't have to pay, the barista I interrogated at the café had just one comment: "This place is notorious for pickpockets."
Without money or bus tickets, I ran home to cancel my credit cards.
Losing a wallet is annoying and dangerous in this brave new world of identity theft, and it's especially painful for someone who feels like a financial dunce. It brings up usually well-concealed fears of incompetence.
When I was young and single in New York, I had bank accounts and credit cards of my own. But in the 40-odd years that I've been married and lived in Montreal, my husband has always handled the money.
He earns more as a doctor than I do as a writer, and although we both love our work, he also enjoys the puzzle of keeping our household finances on track. It gives me a headache. He's stopped trying to teach me. I resist, forget, misunderstand.
I can identify two reasons for this psychological block. The first is innate - I'm a perfectionist. If I can't do something well, I'd rather not do it at all. Whenever I try to learn about money, I display my shortcomings. This seems unnecessary when my husband manages it so well.
The second is my Communist upbringing. After my grandparents lost everything in the Depression, my parents rejected capitalism, became card-carrying members of the party and advocated for the poor and downtrodden. These days I lead a middle-class existence, but on some level I still regard money as evil and want nothing to do with it.
But with my wallet gone, I felt guilty that I hadn't paid more attention to decoding our finances. I waded through our filing cabinets looking for the appropriate numbers to replace my missing cards. I even filed a police report, and - because I had lost all my identification - put a fraud warning on my credit file.
Copies of my credit reports appeared two weeks later. They contained very little information, most of it incomprehensible, but it looked to me as if I had virtually no credit. My husband, certain he was witnessing another example of my willful ignorance, shrugged it off. Why did it matter? He had credit, after all.
Deep in my brain, an alarm sounded. Hadn't I read that women should have credit of their own? What if my husband died, or left me?
He wasn't planning to do either, he said. I wasn't reassured. Although I trust him, life has made me wary. Recently a car accident killed one friend, and the spouse of another left without warning.
I searched the Internet for information and asked about my credit reports at two banks. Opinion was unanimous: My husband was the principal on our joint bank and credit-card accounts, and all the credit we had accumulated together belonged to him.
My husband didn't believe me. To his astonishment, his bank manager confirmed that I was correct.
I needed credit of my own. But if the thousands of credit-card slips I had signed for groceries and gas, airline and movie tickets didn't count, how could I get credit?
One bank suggested a department store card, which is easier to obtain. My mother, who was for many years the family breadwinner, helped me get my first credit card at Macy's when I was 22.
She said a woman must always keep cash hidden in a safe place. She clearly intended her daughter to be financially competent. How could I have forgotten her advice for all these years? I resolved to take it now.
Thinking, no doubt, of all the airline points we'd lose, my husband wasn't so crazy about my applying for my own credit card. But eventually we agreed I should submit an application at our bank.
Although the questions on the form seemed simple, I needed his help to fill in the blanks. When we'd finished, he said, "Is it okay for me to die now?" Since my credit hadn't yet been approved, I told him he'd better stick around for a while and asked him for a basic lesson in family finances. I took copious notes.
In the next few weeks I read more about credit. My husband taught me to pay bills online, but remained skeptical about my financial fitness. He laughed when I told him I had read that no credit rating is worse than a bad credit rating.
At last the credit-card company phoned to quiz me about my work, income and home. This time I could answer the questions. When my new card finally arrived, I felt as if I had been awarded the Order of Canada. I signed it, activated it and set up paying my bill online and on time.
My mother would have been pleased.
Judy Sklar Rasminsky lives in Westmount, Que.
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