Magic Money: 5 True Tales of Unexpected Windfalls


One Hundred Dollar Bills In A Magic Hat with WandWho doesn’t want a little more magic in their lives?

And the best kind of hocus-pocus is not a card trick, a rabbit pulled from a hat or a disappearing act … it’s magic money.

The cash could be the small inheritance from a distant relative that buys a nice dinner, a couple bucks you found in the dryer on laundry day, or just a lucky penny staring up at you when you need a good omen.

Whatever the source, we love it.

In fact, we tend to spend small windfalls differently than our everyday money. Harvard University researchers found that when shoppers received an unexpected $10 off at online grocers, they spent an average of $1.59 more than they would have otherwise without the discount. That’s because of a behavioral finance quirk known as “mental accounting,” which means we treat money differently depending on the source.

So if you get some magic money, use it wisely or at least understand when you’re splurging.

RELATED: 6 Times We Tend to Overspend

We asked five people who have received a money surprise to tell us what it means to them and how they dealt with it.

Cash From the Past

Carlton Schofield, a 76-year-old artist, lives in the row house he grew up in Washington, D.C. He moved there to take care of his sick mother and stayed after she passed away. Schofield delights in occasionally finding some of his family’s stashes of cash they left behind.

“My family, especially my mother, had the habit of hiding small sums of cash for a rainy day in odd places,” he says. “So sometimes I find them, these little wads. I like to think of it as my relatives sending me a little something when I need it.”

Recently, when cleaning out a jumbled closet of a seldom-used room in the house, he found a fifty dollar bill in the pocket of his mother’s old coat. “I swear when I found it I could feel my mother smiling about it,” he says.

RELATED: Is There Such Thing as Leaving Your Child Too Much Money?

  • Jean

    Yeah, I have “magic” money, except it never appears in my house, it just disappears

  • JenInBoston

    Once when I was really living paycheck to paycheck, I was at the supermarket self-checkout when I noticed $40 in the bills dispenser. Somebody must have used their debit card for cash back, then forgotten to pick up the cash. There hadn’t been anyone at the kiosk when I came up to it, and I looked around and didn’t see anyone searching for it etc. So I took it to the service desk. They took my info down and when nobody had claimed the money after 30 days, they just gave it to me. I bought groceries with it.

    • LeeLee

      Glad to hear stories of people doing the right thing!

  • Christine Tarlecki

    Once at the store I spied $200 on the ground in cash. I quick picked it up and my friend suggested we turn it in. I didn’t really want too, but we went to the Police and made a small statement. (this was in the summer) At Christmas, my friend came over with an envelope of $100 for me…the money was never claimed and the police gave it back to us! I do believe I bought some after Christmas gifts with that windfall! And at the beach last summer I found a $20. There was no one around or looking for it. I bought dinner- crab legs and TastyKakes lol!

  • Caitlyn

    I’m insanely good at finding money – but I think it comes to you when you really need it.

    Once, when I was studying abroad and worrying about my next meal poor (oh, the days when that was romantic), I found £20 at the bus stop on my way to my internship. It was a godsend.

    And then, when my internship was over for the day, I found a further £20 in the hall! (I looked for the owner, but none was found.) And then I didn’t have to worry about my grocery budget for that week. It was great.

    (This would probably be the sixth or seventh time I’d found money at the time. My family makes tremendous fun of me for it.)

  • Julie

    One time… The I asked for $80 dollars at the ATM and $100 came out! The bills MUST have been stuck together. :)

  • Toni

    I have had this happen to me! A friend and I went to Cancun (that’s a story in itself) and while we were there she wanted to mail something. I stuck a 50 peso bill in the pocket of my cover up for it. The post office wasn’t open so we went ahead to the beach. We sat for a while and then decided to move a bit. When I picked up my coverup I noticed my bill on the ground and picked it up and stuck in my pocket again. Later, back at the room, I went to pull the bill out of my pocket and realized there were 2! My original 50 peso and then a 500 peso bill (they look very similar)! We used the 500 peso (about $50 then) for a nice dinner. I can’t remember if we ever sent the mail, though.

  • LaJacqueReal

    Although I’m always blessed and find random dollar bills laying around, there’s two AWESOME incidents that really stick out. 1 – when my student loans kicked in I was struggling financially and living in a really bad neighborhood in NYC. I was on my way to the subway station one night to visit a friend and noticed a roll of money in the shade under a tree which ended up being $200. This was most likely drug money (I can tell because of the way it was packed) so I kept it and used it towards bills. 2 – during a MAJOR house cleaning my mom found student bonds which we thought were used up after my family underwent a financial crisis some years back and had to cash them out (before I went to college). I brought them to the bank and they all had accrued their face value and then some! I came out with $2k+ which I automatically put towards my loans. Looking forward to the next big payout!

    • LeeLee

      So you justified committing a misdemeanor because you assumed that the money was earned illegally? Two wrongs do not make a right, and that defense wouldn’t hold up in court.

  • barb

    Fooling around on the computer I discovered that those little figurines in Red Rose Tea are worth 5-15 dollars. We only have 3, having donated literally boxes full, but I put them in a bag with the date & eBay estimates & a funny message to my adult children that will make them laugh

  • Kelly

    I never find money. I must be the person leaving it behind!

  • rubymer

    One time the ATM gave me a 50 instead of a 20, so I gained 30$. No one believed me but I know it happened. I’ve read online this type of error happens from time to time.

    • LeeLee

      You mean it gave you $50 instead of $20, so you stole $30.

  • LeeLee

    I am so very surprised at all of these responses and the tone of the author. Just because someone accidentally dropped some cash does not make it ethically or legally yours! And should people really expect to be compensated for doing the right thing (although some states do allow for a finder’s fee)?

    Lost money still belongs to the original owner, and most states have statutes that require you to turn it over to a lost and found or the police. If the owner does not make an attempt to claim it in a certain amount of time (varies by state), THEN it is often yours to keep. Keeping it before then makes you a thief.

  • Annie

    Me and two buddies were driving down the road one day and saw money blowing across the highway! We stopped and started grabbing everything we could find, must of been a couple of thousand dollars! Then we started to see the checks that were floating around with the money. They were written to “Foundation for the Deaf and Blind”. We called the sheriff’s office and asked if anyone had called. Yes, a lady had put her purse on top of her car. We asked where she was and went down to the park to find her. It was donated money for her deaf son to go to Washington DC. We felt really good about giving it all back. She offered us a reward. We told her No! I have a memory for the rest of my life!