If you saw a dollar bill lying on the ground, you’d probably pick it up — that is, as long as you didn’t know whose it was. It’s free, after all.
But, what if you knew there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars in free money at your fingertips. You wouldn’t pass it up, would you? Unfortunately, you might be doing just that.
Many Americans are leaving cash and cash equivalents on the table, because they’re not taking advantage of all the available opportunities. Here are nine ways to find free money and avoid missing out on what should be yours.
1. You’re Not Applying for College Scholarships
Scholarships are the easiest way to pick up free money for a college education — and you don’t have to be a star student or athlete to get one.
“Scholarships are given away for so many reasons beyond just academic achievement and sports,” said Kristina Ellis, who won $500,000 worth of scholarships and is the author of “Confessions of a Scholarship Winner.” “For example, there are scholarships for having awesome bagpiping skills, having the best zombie-apocalypse escape plan and having the most creative duct tape prom dress. Whatever you’re interested in or passionate about might qualify you.”
The key to winning a scholarship, Ellis said, is planning early. “Many students wait until senior year to think about scholarship applications, but most award decisions are based on your entire high school experience, beginning with ninth grade,” she said. So, you need to spend all four years building a winning resume.
Apply for as many scholarships as possible to boost your chances of being selected for one. Make sure, though, that you invest a strong effort in each submission. And don’t overlook scholarships with smaller amounts of award money because they often have less competition and can add up quickly if you win several, said Ellis.
2. You’re Not Taking Advantage of Matching Contributions
Just 58% of eligible American workers participated in a 401(k) in 2021, according to Bank of America’s “2022 Financial Life Benefits Impact Report.” The other 42% might be missing out on a major source of free money — matching contributions from employers.
Forty-three percent of employers offered the most common match formula — a 100% match on the first 3% of the employee’s contributions (assumed to be 5%) and a 50% match on the next 2%, according to Fidelity’s “Building Financial Futures” report for the fourth quarter of 2022. That means employees earning the median $1,085 per week during that period might’ve missed out on $2,821 (annualized) of free money.
To take advantage of these free funds, sign up for your employer’s 401(k) plan if you’re not already enrolled. Then contribute enough to take advantage of the full match your employer offers.
3. You’re Not Using Cash-Back Shopping Sites
If you’re not using a cash-back shopping website, you’re missing out on a chance to get free money when you make purchases. Sites such as Rakuten, BeFrugal and Mr. Rebates partner with retailers to let consumers earn back a percentage of the money they spend on qualifying purchases. You can sign up for free at these sites, click on the links to retailers and shop as you normally would.
With Rakuten, for example, you can get an average of 2% to 10% back — and sometimes significantly more — each time you purchase items from the more than 3,500 stores it partners with. You’ll see your cash on the Rakuten dashboard and can cash out by requesting a check or PayPal deposit.
4. You Don’t Have a Cash-Back Credit Card
If you pay off your credit card balance each month, it’s wise to maximize credit with a cash-back rewards card. Rewards typically range from 1% to 5% of purchases, depending on the category, and can add up to hundreds of dollars per year for the typical household.
To find the best cash-back rewards card, think about how you spend. Most consumers spend in a few categories such as groceries, gas and restaurants, for example, so look for a card that offers the most cash back on items or services you typically pay for with a card.
5. You’re Ignoring New Bank Account Bonuses
You can get free money just by opening a new bank account. Banks occasionally offer cash bonuses to entice new customers to open a checking or savings account with them.
For example, Citibank is offering cash bonuses of $200 to $2,000 to customers who open an eligible checking account by April 4. You have 20 days to deposit the funds after you’ve opened the account. Then maintain the balance for at least 60 days and complete the required activities to unlock the bonus.
If you’ve been thinking about switching banks or opening a new account, do an online search for “bank account bonus offers” to see what’s available and compare offers. Just be sure to read the terms to ensure you can meet them and receive your cash bonus.
6. You Have Unclaimed Tax Refunds
Every year, millions of federal tax refunds go unclaimed because taxpayers who are owed money fail to file returns. As of March 2022, the IRS had $1.5 billion in unclaimed refunds to the estimated 1.5 million taxpayers who failed to file a federal tax return in 2018. The median refund value was $813.
That’s no small chunk of change to leave on the table. Sometimes, people don’t file a return because they aren’t required to. Even then, they still might be due a refund, according to the IRS. So if you failed to file a federal tax return in the past, there might be money waiting for you.
You have up to three years from the time a tax return is due to file it and claim a refund. You can find prior year tax forms at IRS.gov, and order copies of your wage and income transcripts if you can’t get that information from employers or other payers.
You might also be missing a refund if you filed a return but never received a check because the IRS had the wrong address for you on file. To check the status of a refund, you can use the Where’s My Refund? tool at IRS.gov.
7. You Have Unclaimed Property
About one in 10 people have unclaimed cash or property held by state governments and treasuries — billions of dollars worth in all, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Some of it might belong to you.
Companies and financial institutions turn over money in idle accounts — such as bank and investment accounts — and unredeemed assets — such as money orders, insurance payments and security deposits — to state treasuries, which hang onto these forgotten funds. You can search unclaimed property records for free at MissingMoney.com to see if any states are holding money or assets that belong to you.
8. You Haven’t Cashed in Savings Bonds
Billions of dollars in savings bonds have stopped earning interest and haven’t been cashed in, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury. Perhaps you received a savings bond as a gift when you were born or as a small child, but lost it. If so, you might be able to claim what is owed to you.
You can search the Treasury Hunt database at TreasuryHunt.gov for Series E bonds issued after 1974 and Series EE bonds that have reached final maturity. You can file a claim for your lost bonds by downloading FS Form 1048 from the site.
9. You’re Not Redeeming Hotel and Airline Rewards
If you’ve gone to the trouble of signing up for a travel rewards credit card — or hotel or airline loyalty program — and have racked up points, make sure you redeem them for free hotel stays and flights. You can travel the world practically for free using the right rewards.
Depending on the airline loyalty program, as few as 8% of frequent flyer miles get redeemed, according to a June 2022 report by CBS News. That’s a lot of free flights to leave on the tarmac.
If your travel rewards are going unclaimed because you’re having trouble tracking them, the free AwardWallet app can help. You’ll get alerts before your miles expire and be able to access your point balances in one place. You might just score a vacation for less.
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Daria Uhlig contributed to the reporting of this article.
Editorial Note: This content is not provided by Chase. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, ratings or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author alone and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by Chase.