Dealing With “Found” Cash: What’s Right and What’s Wrong?

Two readers wrote in yesterday with concerns about handling cash they found. First, James:

I was at the grocery store this morning and I found a $20 bill on the floor. I picked it up and pocketed it and went home. My wife told me later on that I basically stole the money and I should have told the store manager about it. If it’s obviously abandoned cash, I think it’s more of a “finders keepers” type of thing. What do you think?

And then Margaret:

I found a $100 bill on the sidewalk yesterday. I was thrilled but then I began to worry about the person who dropped it. They might have really needed it for something important. What should I do?

I’ve found money several times and have often been puzzled about what to do with it.

When I was twelve, I saved up almost $200 (mostly through selling crushed aluminum cans or returning nickel cans in Iowa) with which I intended to buy a video game console. I had ten $20 bills, which I kept in my hip pocket out of fear of losing them. My mother took me to a city about forty minutes away where I was to have a doctor’s appointment, then we were going to go buy the console.

During the doctor’s visit, the money vanished. I had the money in my pocket just before entering the doctor’s office. I didn’t have it during the elevator ride back down to the car.

We returned to the doctor’s office and searched frantically. To this day, I’m suspicious that the receptionist found and pocketed the money, because she just sat there and watched us and told us that we wouldn’t be able to find it and she was sure that it wasn’t there.

If I were on the reverse end of that stick, I couldn’t imagine not giving the money back to the child. That just seems incredibly cruel and unethical.

After more than a bit of reflection, this is how I handle all found money.

If I find money with any form of identification attached to it, I try to return it. Anything that can possibly distinguish the money I’ve found from normal money, such as a money clip or a wallet or anything like that, results in some effort to return it to its rightful owner. It doesn’t matter where I find it – if I find it with something that makes identification directly possible, I try to return it myself.

If there is no identification and I’m in a place of business or government, I inform the manager but retain the item. I usually go to the manager and simply state that I’ve found a small amount of cash and would like to return it to its rightful owner. I offer to leave my contact information there. I don’t turn over the money to the person at the counter because that money is often pocketed. I then wait and see if anyone contacts me and can identify the exact amount lost. If someone does, then I’ll happily return it to them. If I don’t hear from anyone in thirty days, I keep the money.

If there is no identification and I’m in a public place, like a sidewalk or a park, I pocket the money. There is no simple or effective way to return the money in this situation because there is no effective “lost and found” for someone to seek the item. If someone has lost cash in such a situation, I view it as irresponsibility and feel no guilt about pocketing it. Of course, if someone returns while I’m still there and is searching for the money, I’ll ask them what they’re looking for and if they tell me, then I’ll give them the money that I found. If it’s possible for me to leave a note (with sidewalk chalk or something), I’ll do so, simply stating “I found an item of some value here. If you lost it, call me and identify it!”

In other words, if there is a reasonably simple way for me to return the money, I’ll do so. If there is no clear way to make it possible for me to return the money, however, I’ll pocket the money. In the end, it’s all about putting yourself in the shoes of the person that lost it – if they put up a reasonable effort to find it, I’ll do the same.

So, if I roll back to my twelve year old self at that doctor’s office, what would I have done if I had found the money? I would have went to the receptionist, reported to her that I had found a personal item of some value that someone had left behind, and given her my contact information in case anyone showed up to claim it. I would not simply hand it over. If I didn’t hear anything after thirty days, I would have simply kept the money.