Updated on 12.21.11

A Moment of Serendipity

Trent Hamm

Lately, there have been lots of stories of people blessed with opportunity using that newfound wealth to help others.

A Minnesota farmer gave most of his estate to his hometown, totaling about $3 million.

A person in Ohio paid off $8,800 in WalMart layway accounts anonymously.

Another “Secret Santa” in North Carolina made a similar move, paying off layway accounts there.

These types of things are great. When someone does this, they take something they have in abundance and use it to give a fresh opportunity to someone else.

As I’m sure most of you do, I’d like to think that many of the people who have been given this opportunity are going to take advantage of it. Instead of struggling to pay off that layaway bill, they can start hammering away at a credit card or maybe put some money away to pay for a future car repair. However, the reality is that some of the recipients of such serendipitous gifts will simply look for another way to get themselves into financial trouble.

This brings us back to the heart of the story.

Let’s say you were the recipient of such a boon. Thinking about it from a distance, you’re probably quite sure you would use that benefit for something worthwhile, like eliminating a little bit of debt or buffing up an emergency fund.

But would you do that? Would you be tempted to use that serendipity for something fun instead? Think about the little boons that life hands you all the time.

If you find a five dollar bill at the gas station (which I actually did a few days ago), what do you do with it? Do you pocket it and use it when you’re buying essential groceries, or do you take it inside and get yourself a Big Gulp and a slice of pizza?

If you find several dollars in change spread across your dirty jeans (which I did several days ago), do you do something fun with it or do you sock it away for something big?

I used to be very bad at this. I would spend “serendipity money” quite easily on whatever trivial thing I wanted at the moment.

Eventually, though, I began to realize that those little trivial things of the moment didn’t really make my life one little bit better.

So, instead, I started a “serendipity jar.” Whenever I find some money like that, whether it’s a quarter on the street, a $5 bill at the gas station, or $3.79 in change in my dirty jeans, it all goes in that jar.

When that jar is full, I take it to the bank and deposit it into my checking account, then go on with life as normal, except that my checking account has a couple hundred more dollars in it.

That extra hundred or two feels pretty good. It feels like freedom, and it often makes some problem in my life go away. It buys a new tire when one blows out or pays for a child’s costume for a dance recital without having to tap my actual emergency fund at all.

That, to me, is what serendipity is all about. Rather than providing a perk that’s forgotten in fifteen minutes, it smooths out what could be a worrisome bump in the road of life.

When serendipity finds you, don’t think of fulfilling whatever immediate desire you have. Instead, think of making your life better. Do something useful with it.

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  1. Laundry Lady says:

    While I agree with the above sentiment in theory, I think it’s important to note that using “found money” for fun / unnecessary items is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of us are on such tight budgets that there is very little margin to enjoy life. I think I’d be tempted to set the money aside to buy a new book I’ve been wanting or to save for a rare dinner out for my husband and me. Both are luxuries for our family, but certainly do add to the quality of our life. This doesn’t necessarily mean blowing the money at the nearest mini-mart (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, especially if the occasion cup of coffee has been cut out of your budget and the nearby place actually has good coffee). I don’t think I would ever just deposit it in my checking account and move on. It would at least be allocated toward something whether that be saving for a stand mixer for the kitchen or new shoes for my daughter.

  2. Michael says:

    I’ve been telling myself for years that a McChicken now is a prime rib later.

    Unfortunately, I think I like chicken sandwiches more than steak, but for most people it works!

  3. lurker carl says:

    Nice sentiments but have little in common with serendipity. Secret Santas and bequeathments are intentional acts of charity. Money left on the street is luck – good for the finder and bad for the loser. Discovering money in your own pocket is forgetfulness.

  4. Another Katie says:

    “It buys a new tire when one blows out or pays for a child’s costume for a dance recital without having to tap my actual emergency fund at all.”

    If either of these (particularly the costume) requires the use of your emergency fund, I think you need to work on your budget. Neither is an emergency.

    As for found money, my husband and I often use part for something practical and part for something fun. We are meeting our financial goals with our budget, so we can spend unexpected money on something we enjoy.

    I also find it interesting that Trent considers spending the money on something fun as trivial or forgotten in 15 minutes. Perhaps that indicates that he should think more about what he spends fun money on.

  5. Steven says:

    Speaking of “finding money,” there’s a new start-up website out of Minneapolis (where I live) that pays folks to watch ads. I wrote about it a few days ago on my blog (I know this sounds like spam, but since I can’t post a link, I have to encourage people to click over to my blog) because since I started doing it, I’ve made about $12. It’s “extra” money that I think most people would appreciate. Anyone who’s interested, I hope you’ll check out the article. You start out able to earn about $5 a week, and can increase that over time.

    Well, enough with the shameless plug! If someone were to give me a leg up, I know I’d do the “right” thing and use it to my advantage, and I’d probably end up saving the money.

  6. AndreaS says:

    Laundry Lady, sigh. When you are so financially tight that finding $5 is significant to you, this means you should be setting aside these small amounts to get ahead.

    I know a family is in this situation, as the result of a bad combination life events this year. They have some digging out to do to catch up on bills and rebuild a savings account. Their finances are so tight, all they have to work with is these small amounts that go out a few times a month, which add up. So when her husband goes to town to do necessary errands, if he is watching his preschooler that day, he might pay $5 to take his son to a gym for kids. In other ways I see small amounts spent on gas for errands or entertainment that could have been avoided. They usually eat meat-based meals (like chicken) instead of legume-based meals. So altogether maybe $50 to $100 a month that I know about. But that small amount matters when there is a minor fender bender that sets them back $250, while money on credit cards goes unpaid.

    Instead, of spending small amounts on little luxuries, why not bank that money? Then find free ways to build luxury in your life. Make that nice meal at home. Be more creative with your children at home, or find free sources of entertainment that don’t need extra gas to get there. Put that book on your Amazon gift list in case someone is looking to buy you a gift. How important is that specific book, as compared to the glut of 25-cent books easily found at yard sales? Or why not get it from the library? Why not save that money to buy something that will permanently lower your cost of living, such as a small freezer.

    I know this seems nit picky, but for many families these small amounts of money are all they have to improve their financial situation. But instead they give in to the thinking that “we are poor, so we have this one luxury because it is all we can afford.”

  7. DeeBee says:

    I’m blessed to not have debt at this time in my life. I found $20 on the street early one morning, and pledged to set it aside. I marked it in my finance software as a deposit to “charitable contributions”. That money went to a local food pantry as an addition onto my donation. It made me feel very good to have done that, instead of spending the $20.

  8. Laundry Lady says:

    @ #6 AdreaS
    I’m not saying that using found money for fun things should take the place of saving for the future; just that sometimes it is OK to use small amounts of found money to add some fun to life, as long as it is done deliberately not as a impulse to splurge. We all have things we love to do that may not be our budget. There is nothing wrong with setting aside money towards these “enjoyment goals”; provided it doesn’t take the place of necessities. As for finding $5 being significant; I think I will always feel that way. It’s my frugal nature. $5 has bought my daughter a pair of brand new shoes or other clothing item at a consignment sale. I consider that significant. Plus, as you pointed out, small amounts of money do add up quickly. Why not compromise? We usually split small amounts of windfall money between current needs, future goals and small luxuries. (I clarify windfall because I’m not talking about money you actually lost and found, but rather extra money that comes into your life unexpectedly).
    @#7 DeeBee
    That’s a great sentiment. Wish more people would do that.

  9. Gwen Jones says:

    Someone paid off accounts at Kmart, not Walmart. Still a great story, though.

  10. For me, found money was for donating. My church had a Heifer International jar and any found money went into that jar. But now that my church has closed for lack of funds, I have a new church I am attending that doesn’t have such a jar. So not sure where found money will go, but I can’t say I have ever found $5 somewhere. Dimes, nickles and pennies, yes, but not much in the way of bills.

  11. Louise says:

    If I get some kind of windfall (not necessarily found money), I usually allow myself to spend 10-20% for fun, and either contribute to charity or do something practical with the rest. But when it’s very small amounts, that just goes into my change purse or wallet for regular bills.

  12. Kandace@pantrydiva says:

    Found money at our house goes into a jar, whichwe annually give to our elderly neighbor on a fixed income. He loves looking through the coins for unique ones and then takes the money to a store or bank and cashes it in.

    We are fortunate that we have decent incomes and savings so the extra money can go to someone else who needs it.

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