The Moral Dilemma of Found Cash

found cash

Two weeks ago I had to make an emergency trip to the home improvement store to buy a replacement part for my toilet. The home improvement store shares a strip mall with another big box store and several smaller stores. I parked between the big box store and the home improvement place since that seemed the least congested and I just wanted to get the trip over with.

Anyway, when I stepped out of the car I found $200 in cash lying on the ground. I’m sure someone had it in their pocket and then dragged it out when they pulled out their keys or cell phone. It was two $100 bills folded up together with no identification. No shopping list, no ATM slip, nothing. No one else was getting into or out of cars in the immediate area, so I couldn’t ask if anyone had dropped it or seen anyone leaving my space.

Amazed at my luck, I sat back down in the car to think things through for a few minutes. Had there been any identification or even just a phone number there would have been no question about what to do next: I would have found a way to return it. But since cash is effectively untraceable, I had a dilemma on my hands.

Since I’d parked between two stores, with some smaller stores also occupying the shopping center, I had no way of knowing which store(s) the owner of the cash went into. That sort of let out giving it to a lost and found department. If I gave it to the home improvement place but the owner went only to the big box store, he or she would likely never go into the home store to inquire about the lost money, and vice versa. Factor in the smaller stores and the wind and the breeze generated by passing cars that might have pushed the money from one end of the parking lot to the other and it becomes almost impossible to figure out where the person might have intended to shop. Plus, when you turn in cash to a lost and found you’re assuming that the employees will actually hold it to see if anyone claims it, instead of keeping it for themselves.

Eventually I decided to go into the two big stores and give my name and number to the managers on duty. I simply told them that I’d found a large amount of cash in the parking lot and if anyone came looking for it to have them call me and identify how much they’d lost. I decided to wait a week and see what happened.

I didn’t know what else to do. Usually I find pennies, dimes, the occasional dollar or, once, a twenty dollar bill. Those sorts of finds are pretty easy to say, “I’ll just keep it.” But $200 is a lot of money, especially during the Christmas season. I knew someone was going to be really upset that they’d lost it, but I didn’t have any real ideas about what else to do.

After thinking some more, I called the police station to see if they had any ideas or if they could hold it in case someone called to claim it. They said that they really don’t get involved with lost property unless it’s a “substantial amount of cash” (thousands of dollars), or if it is identifiable in some way (like a ring, wallet, or a watch). It’s a big city, so I guess they just don’t have time to deal with small stuff.

A week went by and no one called me to ask about the money. I decided the money was mine to keep at that point. Lost is lost and no amount of wandering around the city on my part was going to find the owner. Who knows if the person was even from the area or just passing through. I still hated the idea of keeping the money, so ultimately I gave it all to one of my favorite local charities. At least someone is going to benefit from the money this Christmas.

I still wonder if I made the right choice, but I still don’t know what else I could have done. I feel better that I didn’t keep it and spend it on something frivolous, but it still bugs me that someone, somewhere, is out $200.

This little moral dilemma of mine makes me want to offer one suggestion to my readers. If you are carrying large amounts of cash, make sure to keep it in a wallet or envelope with identification, put a sticky note on it with your information, or in some other way make sure it can get back to you. You may not get it back because some people will still keep something that has a name printed on it. But you will make things easier for people like me who genuinely want to give your money back.

(Photo courtesy of quinn.anya)

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4 Responses to The Moral Dilemma of Found Cash

  1. Luke says:

    Money clip. As thick and uncomfortable to get in and out of the pocket as possible. Monogrammed with my name. I only carry cash, I got out of the credit/debit card/checking account game years ago.

  2. pen says:

    you did the best you could. On the rare times I carry more then $5, it stays in my wallet, inside another bag to minimize the chance of it being lost. thank you for trying to find the first owner of the money you found. I’m sure the charity appreciated the donation.

  3. EarlyRetirementJoy says:

    I find your solution to be very moral, and one I could live with myself. You attempted to find the proper owner, and then passed it on to others who need it more than you when the rightful owner could not be found. Thank you for sharing . . . I’m inspired by your post. :-)

  4. Joy says:

    I appreciate that you’re empathetic to the degree that you’re still bothered by it, picturing that person’s suffering at the loss. Your solution to give it to a charity is a wonderful one many folks might not have thought of. I’m going to read this story to my daughter up to the point where you come up with your solution, and talk with her about her ideas. Then read your solution. I love it.

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