Financial coach David Bach shares his simple strategies from his book, Debt Free for Life, that may help you "find the money"—money that you may already have but don't know about.
State treasurers and other government agencies are currently holding more than $32 billion in unclaimed assets from 117 million accounts that their owners have either forgotten about or never knew they had.
I assume that sentence above about the $32 billion in unclaimed assets got your attention. Well, it's true. Billions of dollars in unclaimed assets are sitting in government coffers—and maybe some of it is yours. So let's take a look. Who knows—you may find some money that's just sitting out there somewhere, waiting for you.
1. Check the Federal Government's Savings Bond Database
According to the United States Treasury, more than $17 billion worth of Series E Savings Bonds have never been redeemed. These bonds were sold between 1941 and 1980, marketed by the government as a safe and patriotic way to invest. Maybe you got one as a gift. (I know I did—the dreaded "Grandma got you a savings bond" gift.) Apparently, a lot of recipients simply forgot about them.
There are more than 55 million savings bonds that people own, so it's not that much of a stretch to imagine that at one point maybe you were given a savings bond that you forgot to cash. Well, let's go and find out. You can do this in minutes. First visit the Treasury Department's savings bonds website and navigate to a special page called Treasury Hunt®. Once you've reached the Treasury Hunt page, you'll find a big blue button two-thirds of the way down marked "Start Search." Click on it, type in your Social Security number, and you'll instantly be informed whether or not they are holding some bonds in your name!
If it turns out they are, you will need to fill out some forms to get your money back. Use form PDF 048 if your savings bonds were lost, stolen, or destroyed; form PDF 3062-4 if your bonds never got delivered. Both can be downloaded from the Treasury Hunt page. Again, it's all free, and it can lead to found money!
2. Check the Banks
As much fun as it is to find money the Treasury is holding for you, it's equally fun to find money the banks may be holding for you. Remember that savings account you opened up with your parents as a kid? Did you every cash it out? What about the bank account you first opened up when you got married, or that college savings account your grandmother opened for your kids?
The fact is that people move, change jobs, get married, change their names, get divorced, change their names again, die-you name it. Every single day, money gets lost at the banks.
And it's not simply because people forget. These days, if there is no activity on a bank account for a year or so, the bank will send you a letter basically asking what's up and warning that if they don't hear back from you, they will consider the account to have been abandoned. Unfortunately, since one out of every seven Americans moves each year, these letters often don't reach the account holders and so their money goes into the unclaimed pile.
Here's how to find the money that you may have lost. My first stop would be the NAUPA website, which provides links to the individual databases of all 50 states listing unclaimed assets. I'd also visit MissingMoney.com, a one-stop-shop for finding unclaimed property that is operated by a private company for NAUPA.
3. Check with the FDIC
Not a week goes by that a bank somewhere in the United States isn't taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC. The FDIC moves in to protect our savings when a bank is in danger of failing. In the process, it becomes responsible for all insured deposits and for liquidating any of the bank's remaining assets. Many of these assets are often unclaimed. If you can prove that an account belonging to you is among them, the FDIC will be more than happy to give you your money.
When an FDlC-insured bank fails and is liquidated, the FDIC's resolution division is responsible for paying:
- Unclaimed insured deposits up to the insurance limit
- Dividends declared on excess deposits over the insurance limit
- Dividends declared on general creditor claims.
- Funds distributed to the shareholders of the failed institutions
- An insured deposit wasn't claimed from the bank that took over the assets
- A dividend check on an excess deposit amount was not cashed
- A dividend check on a general credit claim was not cashed
- A check to the shareholder was not cashed
- A valid address is not on file and a dividend check was returned to the FDIC
4. Check the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, otherwise known as the PBGC, is a federal corporation that was created to protect the pension rights of the more than 44 million American workers and retirees who are enrolled in private employer defined benefit plans. As of 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available), the PBGC was holding more than $133 million in unclaimed pension benefits for 32,000 people.
I find this simply amazing. There are 32,000 people who worked at a company for years, earned themselves a pension, but never collected it! According to the PBGC, the average recipient on its unclaimed assets list is owed $4,950—but at least one account is worth $611,028!
If you're wondering whether it's worth your while to go to the PBGC website to see if you might have any missing pension benefits coming to you, here's a fact to consider: Over the last 12 years, more than 22,000 retirees have used it to collect $137 million in previously unclaimed benefits. I call that found money!
So if you or a relative of yours ever worked for a company with a Defined Benefit Plan (not a a01ft) plan), head right now to the PBGC website and do a search to see if you have any unclaimed benefits coming to you. Here's how it works: On the home page, click on the tab labeled "Find Missing Participants" and follow the instructions to run a search. You should also download the PBGC booklet "How to Find a Lost Pension." In just 40 pages, it covers everything you need to know about searching for lost benefits. (You can also get this booklet for free by writing to PBGC Communications and Public Affairs Department, 1200 K St., NW Washington, DC 20005-4026.)
Here's an important tip from the PBGC that can save you from someday becoming a "missing participant": If you are or ever have been enrolled in a defined benefit plan, always keep your employer informed of your current address and any name change, even after you stop working for them. It is especially important that you continually let your former employers know whenever you move so they can always find you in the event you are owed a benefit.
5. Check with the IRS
Am I really suggesting that you check with the IRS to see if they have any money for you? Yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting—and, yes, I mean it. Of all my recommendations, this is the one most likely to actually put money in your pocket. When we think of the IRS, most of us worry that we owe them money. But not everyone does. In fact, many of us are owed money, maybe you! The place to go to find out is the IRS website at www.irs.gov. I absolutely LOVE this website. It is truly a treasure trove of free information that can help you get refunds you never collected, get tax credits you never realized you were eligible for-in short, get what you are owed.
You wouldn't believe how much money people who don't file their taxes are owed in refunds. You read that correctly. I'm talking about the government owing money to people who never bothered to file a tax return. It turns out that in an average year, non-filers fail to claim more than $1 billion in refunds! That's right—more than one billion dollars in uncollected refunds is just sitting at the IRS not going anywhere because the taxpayers who are entitled to the money didn't file returns.
Why would someone not file a return? There are all kinds of reasons, but usually it's because they couldn't be bothered or because they think their income is so low that they don't owe taxes (not realizing that because of withholding they may be entitled to a refund). Whatever the reason, the IRS estimates that for the 2006 tax year, there were roughly 1.4 million people who fell into this category-and who, as a result, are owed more than $1.3 billion. That's more than $900 per person!
Now here's the big catch. The IRS has a rule that you have to claim your refund within three years from the time your return was due or they get to keep the money. By the time this book goes on sale, it will likely be too late for anyone to claim a refund for 2006. But if you have a refund coming to you for 2007 or later, you still have a chance to get your money.
But Wait—There's More at the IRS
It's not just non-filers who don't get their refunds. A lot of refunds go undelivered each year to people who did file. How many? In 2008 (the most recent year for which figures are available), nearly 102,000 taxpayers who filed tax returns and were supposed to receive a total of $123.5 million in refunds never got their checks.
What do you do if you're one of those taxpayers? It's simple. You go online to the IRS website and you click on the link labeled "Where's My Refund?" You then input some basic information about yourself (Social Security number, filing status, and the amount of refund you're due) and the site will tell you the status of your refund. If you don't have access to the Internet, you can phone the IRS toll-free at (800) 829-1040 and ask them if they're holding a tax refund for you.
Since 2004, taxpayers have used the "Where's My Refund?" tool more than 24 million times. If you think there's even a remote chance that you never got a refund you were supposed to get, you should join this crowd. How come all those people never got their checks? Usually, it's because they moved and the IRS didn't have their new address. So how many times have you moved in the last few years? Are you sure the IRS has your current address? Don't assume they know where you are. You want to be sure they have your correct address. The way to do this is to file a change-of-address form (Form 8822), which you can download from the IRS website. You can also call the IRS directly at 1-800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676) and ask them to send you one. I filed an 8822 form myself this year; having moved three times in the last four years, I didn't want to take any chances that a refund I was due might go astray.
6. Check with Social Security
One of the most important bits of advice I offer people is that it's critical to double-check the Social Security benefit statement you receive each year. You want to make sure that the earnings listed on the statement match what you actually earned.
You can check your statement online right now by going to the Social Security Administration's website. Or you can call them toll-free at (800) 722-I2I3 and ask them to mail you your Social Security benefit statement. You are supposed to receive this each year, but if you have moved, it may be going to your old place. So, as with the IRS, make sure the Social Security office has your current address. Over the years, I have found two mistakes on my own Social Security records. So trust me—it is worth taking the time to check. When you retire, the Social Security payments you receive will be based on what the SSAs records say you earned while you were working. If those records say your income was lower than it really was, your benefits will be lower than they should be.
Now Make Sure You Aren't Missing Any Social Security Checks
Here's another one that baffles me. It's reported that approximately half a billion dollars in Social Security checks are either not deposited each year or otherwise go unclaimed. Again, much of this is a result of people moving and not sending the Social Security Administration their new address. But sometimes it's a result of ignorance. For example, when a spouse or parent passes away, the heirs often don't realize they may be entitled to benefits.
The Social Security Administration recommends that you touch base with them as soon as a family member passes away to make sure you receive all the benefits you are entitled to.
Here's an example of one of the many benefits that may be available: A surviving spouse is entitled to a one-time payment of $255 if she or he was living with the deceased or, if living apart, was receiving certain Social Security benefits. If there is no surviving spouse, the payment is made to a child who is eligible for benefits on the deceased's records in the month of death.
Family members who may be eligible to receive monthly benefits include:
- A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled)
- A surviving spouse at any age who is caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16 or disabled
- An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than 18, or is 18 or 19 and a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school, or has a disability that began before age 22
- Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support
- A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances
Again, the place to go to get this information is the Social Security Administration's website. Or call Social Security at (800) 772-1213.
7. Check for Unused Gift Cards and Gift Certificates
How many times have you received a gift card and never bothered to use it or used only part of it-or just flat out lost it? I know I do that all the time. And so do a lot of people. Indeed, according to the WaII Street Journal and research by Tower-Group, each year Americans spend about $65 billion in gift cards but don't redeem $6.8 billion.
Here's the good news: Depending on where you live, state law may require that unused gift cards and gift certificates with expiration dates or services fees must be turned over as unclaimed property.
In most cases, if you are given a gift card or certificate with a specific date, the unused balance is presumed abandoned five years from date of purchase. If the gift card is rechargeable, depending on the state, it may be considered abandoned five years from the date of the last owner-initiated transaction.
Of course, each state has its own laws for unclaimed gift cards and its own system for finding these unclaimed assets. So your best bet is to first to Google the state treasurer's office in your state. Once you've arrived at their website, navigate to their unclaimed assets department and see if they have an area where you can search for abandoned gift cards.
A great example of what I'm talking about here is the State of Illinois' Treasury website. Remember I told you how I originally learned about unclaimed assets from the Illinois state treasurer? Well, her office has a website with an area called "Cash Dash" that lays out exactly how people in Illinois can reclaim these assets. Chances are that your state has something similar—so go and look.
By the way, retailers hate me telling you this. Many national chains have gone out of their way to move their gift-certificate business to states that haven't yet created laws to protect consumers from losing money on unused or expired gift cards. Consumer Reports regards this issue as so important that they launched a public education campaign about the pitfalls associated with gift cards, using the headline: "Last year, shoppers like you were out $8 billion because of unused, lost or expired gift cards..." Hard to believe—but all true, so go and take a look and find some of your money today!