20 Smart Things to Do with $20

I tend to have a surprising amount of luck simply finding money on the ground. I’ve found quarters, dollar bills, fives, and even twenties on a surprisingly regular basis, just sticking out of gutters or half-buried under leaves.

Part of the reason is that, thanks to a lot of time spent hunting for morel mushrooms and geodes in the past, I’m pretty good at observing the ground for things out of place. Another part of the reason is that I genuinely enjoy walking and exploring and examining things when I walk – it’s just a natural hobby of mine.

On top of that, I like finding $20 bills in my own life. If I can find a way to save $20 on my grocery store visit, for example, I view it as a pretty nice victory, one that I feel good about for the rest of the day.

The end result of all of this is a sequence of small windfalls in my life.

Once upon a time, my impulse was always to spend these $20 bills on whatever seemed like the most fun thing to do at the time. It was a special and unexpected splurge, one that generated a burst of fun at a moment when I least expected it.

Today, I find that I’m usually much happier if I find something useful to do with it. If I can turn that $20 bill into something that lasts, something that stretches out into even more savings (and perhaps some saved headaches) down the road, then I’m really happy with that $20 bill.

Here are twenty things I like to do with a found $20 bill.

In this article

    Buy Something in Bulk

    As with most households, our family tends to go through certain items on a regular basis. Trash bags, dish soap, hand towels – we use (and re-use) these items until they’re no longer useful. Eventually, they get replaced.

    The thing with replacing such regularly used nonperishable items is that, when you go to the store and buy them, they’re usually cheaper per item if you buy them in a bulk bundle. Buying a box of 30 trash bags might cost you $0.25 a bag, but if you buy the jumbo box with 120 bags in it, the cost is $0.20 per bag.

    The catch? That jumbo box is way more expensive than the cheap box. At the rates I mention above, the box with 30 bags in it costs $7.50, but the box with 120 in it costs $24.

    That’s where the “found” $20 bill comes in. It lets me upgrade to a bulk purchase of one of these items for free. The total cost of buying four of those 30-count boxes would be $30, but because I could kick in that extra $20 and buy the jumbo box (which has the same number of bags), I’m only spending $24.

    Sure, I’m spending that $20 on something really boring, but by choosing to do so, another $6 is effortlessly saved.

    Add to Your Emergency Fund

    During our big financial turnaround, one of our biggest milestones was building up a healthy emergency fund. Our target was to have six months of living expenses sitting in a savings account.

    How did we get there? Being careful with our spending was one big part of it, but another part was adding these little $20 windfalls to the pot when we would find them.

    If you stick that $20 bill into your emergency fund, you’ll probably forget all about it tomorrow. However, in a few months, when a real emergency happens – you suddenly need to fly to New York to visit a very ill friend, for example – that $20 bill will be there for you to help make that emergency easier.

    Not only that, it will earn a little bit of interest while it waits for your emergency.

    I consider money put aside like that to be a gift to my future self, arriving exactly at a moment when I will really need it.

    Buy Some Jumper Cables

    Let me paint two scenarios with you.

    You’re sitting outside of work and your car won’t start. You don’t have jumper cables and everyone else is rushing to their car – and they probably don’t have cables, either. Maybe, if you’re lucky, someone will stop by and help, but you’re probably calling for help, and that’s going to add up to a bill.

    On the other hand, imagine you’re sitting outside of work and your car won’t start. You happen to have some jumper cables, so you get out of your car and wave down someone parked near you. Could they possibly give you a jump? You have the cables, so all they have to do is let their car run near you for a few minutes. Boom – you’re back on the road without the expense of calling for help.

    That’s the value of jumper cables. Not only do they save you time in the situation of a dead car battery, they also can save you a lot of money. It only takes one situation like this for a set of jumper cables to pay for themselves.

    Just buy a nice set at your local automotive store and stow them away in your trunk. The cables are there when you need them.

    Start a Business

    (Youtube videos, for example)

    Believe it or not, $20 can be the seed money for a number of businesses.

    Want to start your own website? $20 will pay for the domain name and for a few months of hosting.

    Want to start making Youtube videos? $20 can pay for some of the material you might need for your first few videos.

    Want to start a lawn care business? $20 can buy you the first batch of gas you’ll need.

    Take that $20, add a bunch of your own effort, and you can turn it into a lot of money.

    Buy Some Flowers

    Every once in a while, I’ll take $5 to the local florist and buy a handful of seasonal flowers to decorate our home with.

    They’ll usually last just a week, but during that week they contribute a splash of bright color and some wonderful scents to our home. They liven up our dinner table in a fresh and vibrant way.

    With a found $20, I can do this four times. I can get a few tulips for a springtime table, some lilacs in the late spring, a few cornflowers and daisies for the hotter months of the year, and a few asters in the fall.

    If you’re feeling self-conscious about having guests over, flowers in a vase on the table can add a great deal to any room, making it feel much more comfortable and inviting.

    It takes just a touch of color and freshness to make a real difference to the interior beauty of your home. Flowers can provide just the right touch.

    Clean Your Windows

    Do you like it when your house looks beautiful when you arrive home? Do you want it to have a little extra sparkle among the houses in the neighborhood?

    The best way to do that is to simply wash the windows. Not only does it make your house look more inviting to both residents and guests, it can increase the curb appeal of the home if you’re thinking of selling it.

    You can get a jug of outdoor window washing solution that attaches directly to your hose for just $8 or so, then you can just spray down the windows with this solution and it will dry to a nice, clean appearance.

    It doesn’t take a whole lot of work to transform the exterior of your house from drabness to sparkle.

    Buy a Personal Finance Book (and Read It!)

    If you’re struggling to get your finances in order, one of the best things you can do with a found $20 bill is to purchase a really good personal finance book and read it. I also suggest getting a pen and notebook to go along with it so you can jot down notes and do exercises as you’re reading through the book. Depending on the state of your financial affairs, I have three suggestions.

    If you’re looking to simply dig yourself out of a debt hole, check out The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. It provides a great plan for getting your debt under control and paid off and the entire book is written in a encouraging and motivating tone.

    If you’re trying to figure out how to put your finances into a broader context of all of the things you care about in life, try reading Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin, and Monique Tilford. This book focuses on the role money plays in your personal freedom and your ability to do whatever it is you want to do in this world.

    If you’re struggling with the basics of investing, I suggest looking at The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing by Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, and Michael LeBoeuf. The book provides a consistent perspective on the basics of investing, providing a thorough explanation of both “why” and “how” to invest. It very closely matches the reasons why and the methods of how I invest my own money.

    Give these books a deep read – and take notes along the way. Use the contents of these books to push you into action. If you’d like some additional ideas for books to read along these lines, check out my list of 15 essential personal finance and career books.

    Directly Help a Person in Need

    How about paying your luck forward, particularly if you don’t need it right now? If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see lots of opportunities right in front of you to put that money to good use.

    If you see someone struggling with being able to afford their purchase at the grocery store, slip that $20 bill to them to help out. Tell them that you’re just paying forward a good deed.

    Perhaps you’ll see a homeless person who looks hungry. Buy that person a sandwich and bring it back to them so they can have the joy of a full belly.

    Maybe you’ll be blown away by the skill of a street musician. Put that $20 bill in their case or buy that person’s CD.

    There are many opportunities for you to turn that small windfall into a real life-changer for someone else. Pay the good fortune in your life forward to them, and encourage them to keep paying it forward.

    Detail Your Car

    Is your car a little dirty, inside and out? Does it make you feel a bit embarrassed to have someone ride with you? Do you just feel more positive when you get in your car and it’s nice and shiny and feels new(er)?

    You should take that $20 and use it for some auto detailing. Pick up some car surface cleaner and a few rags, then head down to the local car wash.

    Take the remainder of your $20 and pay for a car wash, then drop some quarters in the vacuum and give the interior of your car a good cleaning. Use the rags and the surface cleaner to make the inside sparkle a little.

    It only takes half an hour or so to transform a drab and dirty car to one that looks quite nice on the inside and the outside. It might give you the motivation to do something like get involved in a carpool now that you have a beautiful and presentable car.

    If nothing else, it might just lift your spirits a little at the start of each work day, at least for a while.

    Buy a Small Slow Cooker

    A slow cooker is a great way to prepare home-cooked meals that are ready for you right when you get home from work. All you do is add ingredients in the morning, turn it on low, and everything is ready when you get home.

    You can pick up a great three quart slow cooker for less than $20 – like this one, for example – and it will provide plenty of space to make meals for up to four people.

    Need some recipes? Here are five of my favorites, and here are five more. If you want even more, check out your local library for slow cooker cookbooks – they often have several.

    During the school year, we use the slow cooker multiple times a week, to the point that we’ve semi-seriously joked about buying a second crock because we use it so often.

    Having a slow cooker means that it’s a lot easier to just come home after a busy day rather than going to an expensive restaurant – or even a drive-thru, which can be rather pricy itself.

    Buy a Small Pot and Plant Some Herbs in Your Kitchen

    It’s pretty easy to grow a few herbs in a simple flower pot for use in your kitchen. They require minimal effort and, once you have the pot and the dirt, you can grow a lot of fresh herbs.

    You can pick up a small terra cotta pot for just a few dollars at your local hardware store. Pick up a few packets of seeds, fill up the pot with some dirt that you can find almost anywhere, and plant those seeds. Sit the pot on a windowsill somewhere in your home and water them occasionally.

    In a few weeks, they’ll start sprouting. Within a few months, you’ll have a variety of herbs to use directly in your dishes.

    What do fresh herbs provide? They make homemade meals taste so much better than before. That alone can often give you encouragement to try making a home-cooked meal rather than making something out of a box or ordering something, both of which are more expensive than most home-cooked meals.

    Plus, a little pot of herbs can make for a cute little bit of functional decor in your kitchen.

    Give to a Charity

    This kind of goes hand in hand with the earlier suggestion of directly paying it forward to people you see that are in need of help, but instead of doing it directly, you’re giving aid to an organization that can, in theory, pool resources and do it even better.

    If you find a place to donate some school supplies so a kid has pencils and notebooks, buy a few and drop them in the container.

    If you see a donation box for the local food pantry, slip that $20 bill in there. It’ll buy a poor family some food.

    If you’ve always thought about giving some money to a particular charity but always backed away, don’t back away any more. Write a check for $20, mail it in, and put that $20 bill into your account to cover the check.

    Not only will you help out some people that really need the help, you’ll feel pretty good about doing it, too. Giving to charity invariably lifts my spirits.

    Get a Rechargeable Battery Starter Kit

    We have a number of devices around our home that rely on AA and AAA batteries, from children’s toys to remote controls. It doesn’t take long for the cost of those batteries to really add up, and that’s when rechargeable batteries come in handy.

    If you start off with only a certain type of rechargeable batteries with that starter kit, then just keep buying those when you need more and recharging them when they get old, you’ll soon reach a point where you never run out of batteries. Whenever something runs out of charge, you just take out the batteries, toss them on the charger, then grab some fresh ones out of the drawer.

    It’s a pretty sweet system, but it takes time and there’s a lot of money involved. You can get started with a $20, however, by buying a starter kit that includes a few batteries and a charger.

    Our preferred rechargeable batteries are eneloop batteries, and you can get a charging pack and four AA eneloop batteries for $20 over at Amazon.

    After that, whenever you need new batteries, just buy eneloops. When you switch out batteries and see eneloops, stick them on the charger and then toss the charged ones back in your battery drawer. You’ll never run out of batteries again.

    Go on a Field Trip (and Take Your Kids)

    (tickets to a museum or zoo)

    Want an easy way to spend a great day with your family (or just by yourself)? Go to a local museum or a zoo.

    $20 is usually enough to get an adult and a couple of kids in the door. If you have a backpack, put some drinks and a meal in there so you can eat while you’re touring the place (obviously, check the restrictions of the place you want to visit). If you can, look for coupons or discounted days to visit.

    A day at the museum or at the zoo can provide a ton of family time and can provide some learning opportunities, whether you’re with your family or by yourself.

    We usually pencil in at least one museum visit and one zoo visit per summer and a $20 bill will pay for a significant portion of that visit.

    Get a Carbon Monoxide Detector

    A carbon monoxide detector is an item that should be found in every home. Carbon monoxide is an odorless substance that can leak into your home, causing all kinds of medical problems, and it’s something that can easily be avoided with a detector.

    You can easily pick up a carbon monoxide detector for $20. There are a number of different detectors out there, but they all achieve the same effect.

    Just plug it into an outlet somewhere in your home. If there’s a carbon monoxide leak, the alarm will let you know, loud and clear.

    It might be a completely unglamorous way to spend $20, but it’s something that everyone should really have in your home. If it’s an extra $20, this is a great way to spend it to keep you and your family safe.

    Pick Up a Few Tools

    Having a well-stocked toolbox on hand can save you a lot of aggravation when there’s a minor problem that you can easily fix… with the right tools. If you don’t have one, a small issue can easily turn into a crisis or a trip to an overpriced nearby hardware store or an even worse problem because you tried using the wrong tool.

    I like this list of twelve essential tools for a toolbox. My own list is slightly longer than this one – in fact, it might make for a good article of its own someday.

    With a good toolbox that’s well stocked with the right kinds of tools, minor home repairs become trivial issues. You won’t have to call for help – you can just pull out your toolbox and take care of business.

    Buy a LED Lightbulb (or Three)

    Going forward, LED lightbulbs simply going to be the most cost-effective solution for lighting your home. Modern LED bulbs last twenty times as long as incandescent bulbs and use only a small fraction of the power. I’ve been using LED bulbs in my office for years and I’ve yet to se one fail.

    Still, they’re expensive. The idea of spending $8 or $10 or $20 on a single light bulb seems painful to many people and for good reason – we’ve become used to the idea of cheap light bulbs.

    Over the course of the lifetime of an LED bulb, however, you’ll typically save $100 over the cost of using a similar incandescent bulb. That’s because you’ll need to buy 20 incandescent bulbs instead of one LED bulb, plus they’ll gulp down more energy, too.

    Use that $20 to buy one or two LED bulbs and install them in your home in appropriate sockets. Your savings begins immediately with lower energy bills and, over time, you’ll save due to not having to buy replacement bulbs.

    It’s a simple step that many people avoid because of the up-front cost – but that $20 bill makes that up-front cost disappear.

    Visit a Thrift Store

    Walk into a thrift store with a list of things that you actually need around your home and a $20 bill and there’s a good chance that you’ll mark at least a thing or two off that long list – and you’ll get it at a steep discount.

    When you find a little cash, you’ve found a perfect opportunity to hit the local Goodwill or secondhand store and see if there are any items there that can fill the little nagging needs around your home. Perhaps you need a replacement picture frame or a new toaster and you’ve been putting them off. You can find both at the local secondhand shop.

    Plus, if you’re using a found $20, you’re probably fixing that little problem you have without hitting your checking account at all. That faulty toaster problem is solved. The need your son has for a few new shirts in his rotation? Solved.

    That’s the power of a found $20 spent at a secondhand store.

    Buy a Fan

    On many summer days, the temperature around here rides the fine line between whether or not it makes sense to turn on the air conditioning. Obviously, it’ll save money if you manage to avoid turning it on because the A/C is so pricy, but it’s so warm out.

    That’s when it’s time to take advantage of a fan.

    A fan cools you off by taking advantage of convective heat loss. Air moving around you increases convective heat loss, which means that you feel cooler regardless of the room’s temperature.

    What that means is on a marginal day, a fan can really make the difference between flipping on the expensive air conditioning and just leaving it off.

    Buy a fan and plug it in on a marginal day. Leave the A/C off. You’ll save some real cash that way.

    Have Fun!

    Even though there’s always something useful to do with a $20 bill, sometimes it really is best to just spend it on something purely fun.

    The last time I found $20, what did I do with it? I spent about half of it at an ice cream truck with my kids and I put the other half into my savings jar where I save up extra cash for my annual trip to Gencon.

    It perhaps wasn’t the most useful way to spend that $20, but it was fun.

    Sometimes a little bit of fun is just what the doctor ordered.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.