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Finding lost money: 5 ways to fatten your wallet

One in 10 Americans has a missing asset. From unclaimed tax refunds to rebates and coupons, here's how to claim your cash.
/ Source: TODAY

For most of us, lost money is what’s under the couch, in your coat pocket, on the street somewhere, but there are much larger unclaimed assets out there waiting to be recovered — money in bank accounts you’d forgotten about, paychecks that were never collected, utility and rent deposits, etc. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, one in 10 Americans has forgotten about an asset, and nationally, there's more than $32 billion in assets waiting to be claimed. So how do you find it?

FINDING LOST MONEY
1.  On the Web: How can you claim this money online?

  • Missingmoney.com: It's the only official national database and it's free. Just fill out your name, state, ZIP, etc. and the site automatically searches over 40 states. It takes just seconds and the odds are favorable. One in eight Americans has some missing money to claim. What is the average claim? From $800-$1,000!
  • Expired savings bonds: These are savings bonds that have matured and may be sitting around in your drawers or in a safe deposit box not earning any interest! Need to cash them in? To find out how much they’re worth, go to Treasurydirect.gov. There’s a calculator on the site. Just type in the series — ibonds, ebonds, etc. — and the issue dates of those bonds. Then take those bonds to the bank and cash them in! You do have to pay federal taxes, but don’t let that deter you. Sitting on bonds that aren’t paying interest is silly. You’re better off cashing them in, paying the tax and putting the money to better use. All you’re doing is giving the government an interest-free loan if you don't cash them in!
  • Tax refunds:  Every year, millions of Americans leave tax refunds on the table! You can claim that money on the Web as well! And there’s a lot of it out there. For tax year, 2006, the IRS says it has about $100 million in refund checks for about 115,000 taxpayers. The average unclaimed refund: $953.

    In most cases, these are checks returned to the government because taxpayers moved and didn’t inform the IRS of a new address. If this is you, go to IRS.gov, click on “Where’s my refund?” You will need to fill our your Social Security number, filing status and other information.

2. Cashing in gift cards
Gift cards seemed like the hot gift of the 2007 holiday season. But if you’ve got one, you better use it soon!

  • They don’t last forever: The good news: Ninety-two percent of top retailer gift cards have no expiration date or dormancy fees. (Those are fees charged to you for not using the card, according to the National Retail Federation.) The bad news: If you have a gift card from that 8 percent, that makes all the difference.
  • Expiration dates aren’t the only thing to worry about: You’ve got to worry about the store itself. With the economy in slowdown mode and with consumers pulling back, it’s a tough time for most retailers. And when the store goes out of business, you’re out of luck if you’re still holding a gift card.
  • If you don’t redeem these cards, that benefits the retailer: This is called gift card breakage. Retailers don’t make money by just selling the card. They make money when the card is redeemed. Still, once they can determine that the card won’t be redeemed, that’s a boost to the bottom line.
  • There are fees that are making money for the retailers: This is gravy for the retailers. If you are the gift card giver, chances are you are paying a fee for buying the card. American Express, for instance, has a wide range of cards for dining or for kids and charges $4.95 in fees. And for the gift card receiver, it is fairly common that after six to 12 months, the retailers starts charging you!
  • Let’s say you have a gift card to a store you hate. What can you do? In general, you can’t return them or redeem them for cash. But there are some services that have started in the gift card craze that let you trade them for another gift card. One company is Leverage, which lets consumers sell or swap their unwanted cards.

3. Rebates and coupons

Rebates:

  • View a rebate as a bonus: Don’t rely on the rebate. View it as a bonus, not the means by which you can make a purchase. If you can’t afford the full price without the rebate, don’t buy the product. 
  • Read fine print for eligibility: Read the fine print before you buy. You may find that you’re not eligible for a variety of reasons. Some companies won’t send rebates to P.O. boxes, for instance. Other offers include loopholes about the price paid, or the amount of time you have to mail in the rebate.   
  • Check envelopes carefully: Rebate checks can strongly resemble junk mail, so if you’re prone to tossing out those credit card offers without a second look, start paying attention to make sure you’re not throwing money in the trash.
  • Research on the Web: Web sites like Rebatereportcard.com and rebateroulette.com rate rebates. Check out other people’s experiences with both the company and the product promotion before buying. 

Coupons:

  • Don’t buy things you wouldn’t otherwise need: Don’t buy things you wouldn’t otherwise need or want without a coupon. Wasted food and unworn clothes are not going to save you money. But if there is a two-for-one deal or you get a discount for buying multiples, and it’s something you’ll use or you can freeze for later, go ahead and stock up.
  • Ask stores to match competitor coupons: Many stores will recognize competitors’ coupons and match prices, so don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Request coupons directly from manufacturers: If there’s a product you buy often, call the 800 number on the package and request coupons. Many manufacturers will add you to a mailing list.

4. Give up and save up

On your car:

  • Don't pamper your Pontiac: Unless your car's manual says it needs premium gasoline, regular unleaded is fine. Savings: About $18 per month if you fill up once a week.
  • Drive slowly: Every five miles you go over the speed limit is like paying an extra 20 cents per gallon. Savings: About $22 per month.

On your groceries:

  • Go generic: Buy store brand. Savings: You can slash your grocery bill by 20 percent.
  • Put in some effort: Convenience always costs you! You'll pay a lot more if you buy the prepackaged lettuce, the jars of tomato sauce, the cookies. Take some time to prepare and make those at home.

On your household bills:

  • Install a programmable thermostat: According to the U.S. Department of Energy,  you can slash your heating and cooling bills just by turning your thermostat down 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours a day. Savings: 10 percent on your bill annually.
  • Cancel the premium cable channels you don't watch.

5. Sell some stuff
Your closets, attic and basement are a treasure trove of sellable items just waiting to be uncovered. Selling your personal or family items is a great way to make some cash.

Three best ways to turn your stuff into cash:

  • Throw a yard sale
  • Sell your items online
  • Sell at a consignment shop

Hot items to sell right now:

  • Gold jewelry: Gold hit a peak price this month of more than $1,000 an ounce, so it’s a very valuable metal right now. Sales of gold jewelry on eBay have gone up by more than 30 percent in the past few weeks. Selling your old gold jewelry is a great way to generate extra cash.
  • Polaroid Instant Cameras: Polaroid’s decision to stop manufacturing instant camera film sent Polaroid-lovers on a feeding frenzy on eBay. These cameras are great money-makers right now.
  • Vintage designer clothing: Vintage designer garments are always hot and in demand.