The Ethics of Found Money: Where Do You Draw the Line?

money gutterLast week, while walking in a parking lot, I found a ten-dollar bill on the ground.

The feeling that came over me was similar to when I get a really¬†thoughtful birthday present — or when I find a crumpled sawbuck in the pocket of a winter coat I haven’t worn for many months.

I know what you’re thinking: So, Len, did you consider trying to find the rightful owner?

You bet! I thoroughly scanned the parking lot, looking for people who may have dropped it. And while I did see two folks walking to their cars, they didn’t look like people irresponsible enough to have carelessly dropped five-bucks.

So I kept the cash.

Besides, I believe Federal and State law says — and I’m paraphrasing here — finders keepers losers weepers.

Finding loose money on the ground is kind of like winning the lottery, although the payoff is a lot smaller. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s like winning a lottery scratcher — not that I do that sort of thing.

Anyway, that was only the second time in my life that I ever found something other than a loose coin on the ground.

The other time I was back when I was in third grade; I found a ten-dollar bill while walking to school. Yep. I could barely contain myself when I found it too! After all, that was a lot of cash back then — equivalent to more than $50 today.

Hey, give a kid fifty bucks today and he’ll think he won the lottery too.

Needless to say, by lunch time, every kid on campus knew about my good fortune.

The Ethics of Found Money

Of course, there’s found money — and then there’s found money. Obviously, there is a point where the amount of found cash becomes large enough that not turning it in to the authorities becomes an ethical issue. The question is where do we draw the line?

To me the answer is totally dependent on the circumstances.

I’m sure a lot of you will disagree with my assertion that a single loose bill as large as $100 aimlessly blowing in the street should be considered a personal windfall, no pun intended.

However, I also believe that a wad of cash, or multiple bills tied up with, say, a rubber band or a money clip is absolutely not a windfall. In those cases, I would certainly turn the currency in.

I would also turn in a single $100 bill laying on the floor of any business establishment or, for example, the backseat of a taxi. In both cases, I could easily see the owner, after recognizing he recently lost his money, quickly determining exactly where he lost it.

If the money is in a wallet, purse or any other container with identification, then I think that money should also be turned in regardless of whether it held $10 or $10,000.

What Do You Say, Readers?

I’m curious to know what is the most amount of money you have ever found?

Do you think it’s unethical to keep a loose hundred-dollar bill if you found it at the corner of Main and Elm street and decide not to turn it in to the authorities? If so, would you also turn in a loose one-dollar bill to the authorities as well?

When it comes to the ethics of found money, where do you draw the line?

Photo Credit: Metro Centric

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on May 6, 2010.)

Comments

  1. 1

    T-bone says

    I once found $20 laying on the ground when I was walking into a football stadium. Bought me two beers with it and had a couple bucks left over for a pretzel.

  2. 2

    says

    I would also look around to see if anyone appeared to be searching for the missing money. If so, I would give it back to them. Most times, the person has no idea they have lost it and there is no possible way to give it back to them. So, then it becomes a gift.

    We recently lost an Angel’s ticket on the way into the stadium and it was quickly gone. I’m certain someone watched us drop it and neglected to tell us. That seems more like stealing and I wouldn’t do that. I’d much rather buy something innexpensive than to obscond with it. I value my integrity at much higher than $20.

  3. 3

    Sam says

    The most money I ever found was $10. I was at an indoor mall. The place was full of people but I didn’t bother asking if somebody lost it. I figured half the people there would have said something like “sure I lost it”. Then what? Do I make everybody draw straws? This is ten bucks, not somebodys life savings. Sometimes you should thank your lucky stars and accept what is given to you because sometimes it isn’t practical to hunt down the owner.

  4. 4

    says

    I do the same thing you do. I look for a possible owner. But if I don’t find him I would keep the money. I have found a little bit of money here and there, but nothing over $20.

    However, I have left $140 at the cash machine a while ago, when I took money out of the ATM and I was unusually absent-minded. When I went back after a few minutes, the money was gone. Too many people must have used the ATM already. I hope that the person who found it really needed it and had good use for it.

    As for me, I was a little annoyed with myself but I also realized that not even that much money made a difference in the bigger scheme of things. I have gotten by very well without those $140.

  5. 5

    says

    I stopped carrying cash for this very reason. I got tired of worrying that I would leave it someplace or drop it. I know you can lose a card, but it is only one object to keep track of, as opposed to a number of bills and coins.

  6. 6

    Sandy L says

    My mom found $100 in a wallet when we were in walmart recently. The woman was elated to get it back.

    I have to admit, there was a time in our lives when we would have taken the money and found a way to justify doing it. When $100 is 1/2 your weekly pay…it’s really easy to convince yourself it was a gift from god or something.

    Luckily, these days, not only can I live without the $100, but give alot to others as well. I also remember what it felt like when my cell phone was returned instead of sold on ebay. Priceless.

    Len, do you think it’s easier to be ethical when you have your basic needs met? I sure do. So, as I tangenate totally off topic, I truly believe the best way to reduce crime by working to reduce poverty. These gray areas soon turn into stealing and then to fraud, and who knows what else.

  7. 8

    Jacquelyne says

    I found $20 on the floor by the printer at my job. I sent an email out that I had found some money. No one claimed it for two days. I guess $20 falling out of their pocket was chump change.

    • 9

      Erik says

      I just found $20 in our boardroom and sent the very same email. I went to this site to decide whether or not it was right to send the email out. I could really use the cash but doing the right thing trumps all.

  8. 11

    d says

    Timely post!
    An employer that I haven’t worked for in a year accidently posted an $800 payment into my bank account just yesturday. Yes, I contacted them and it is indeed an error and I will be sending the $ back shortly.

    Now, this is a State University which is already hurting for $ and they were great to work for. I was a contract employee and left on my own accord in good standing. Had I been fired, laid-off, etc I don’t think I would have been so honest!

    • 12

      says

      D you bring up a good point. I find it hard to cheat an employer although many people think they are fair game. One of my former employers bring that type of behavior on themselves. I was ordered to take a class which cost me 650 bucks. I was supposed to be reimbursed for the course and books. My boss lost the paper work and I missed the deadline for reimbursement. It is hard to be honest with a company that acts in that manner.

  9. 13

    sewingirl says

    Years ago I found a bank envelope with someones shopping list in the grocery store parking lot. I don’t know how much money was in it, I didn’t look. I did take it inside, and gave it to the cashier (this is a very small town) who later gave me a cute crocheted bookmark from the happy to be reunited with her cash retiree. It still makes me smile when I use it.

  10. 14

    Financial Bondage says

    I found $17 bucks in a parking lot once. It was blowing across the lot. There was a woman nearby getting out of her car, I thought she dropped it. I asked and she said nope, it’s not hers.

    No one else near by, I figured. Well, It’s mine.

    My rule is this: if the money is lost with ID (like someone lost their wallet), then I will return it. Otherwise, maybe not.

    have to admit though this post has me thinking….

  11. 15

    says

    Actually, about a month ago, I found a $100 bill on the ground at a grocery store. At first, I thought it was fake. Then I figured it was some evil hidden camera show. But no one popped out.

    I hovered in the area for three or four minutes, doing visual sweeps of the surrounding area. I figured if I saw someone looking around on the ground in a panicked way, I’d do the honorable thing.

    But they didn’t. And I knew I should probably turn it in to the customer service people.

    But I didn’t. I felt a little guilty but no one seemed to notice it was missing while I was there — as you said a single bill may not be noticed for awhile.

    Also, I once managed to lose over $300 — back when that’s what I got from the state for the month while I waited to get on disability. I retraced my steps, called the stores. Nada. So I figure now karma only owes me $200.

  12. 16

    says

    I’m a US citizen living in a third world country, and I can’t bring myself to pick up even 20 toea (equal to about 8 US cents). I always think that someone else could probably use it more than me.

  13. 17

    says

    Len,
    My conscience has been stirred.
    In 2002 I was in the Bahamas swimming in the ocean. I looked and saw a $1 bill buried under a little sand. I swam down to get it and then it looked like it has an extra zero. By the time I grabbed the bill it had two zeros. Yep a $100 bill.
    I kept it. I didn’t even ask anyone about it. Like I fool I spent the money. Actually, I wanted to frame it and my wife called me a fool for trying to save it instead of spend it.
    Do I have an ethical responsibility to fly back to Paradise Island to try to make right the injustices of my youth? Please say yes.

  14. 18

    says

    If you are walking in the middle of the road and you pick a penny, then perhaps, you can say it’s your “lucky penny”..

    but there definitely is an element of ethics here. For example, should be take a tennis ball outside a public tennis court when there is no one around? My son used to do that?

    If you work in the lost and found area, do you give away stuff after nobody claims it for a long long time?

    My son once took a ski pole in the mountains when it was there for ages! We returned it but nobody claimed it!

    Perhaps we have to also “distinguish” things which people do not expect to get back if they are careless.

    Examples:

    1. you drop a coin
    2. you lose $5
    3. a plain old black umbrella
    4. tennis balls with no name written on it..

    But I think folks expect people to be more honest if

    1. you lose your wallet – or at least expect them to return it even if they take the cash (that is why I use credit cards!)

    2. you left your bag of shopping stuff in the bathroom!

  15. 19

    says

    I have only been finding pennies where I live so maybe I need to move where some of you live…ha ha.

    I would look around to see if someone was looking for something and ask that person if it was more than $5 (unless it was a kid!!!). If I find one dollar HONESTLY I am not going to ask around..especially in a big store.

    Now if it happened at work..there are only 10 on staff and our students are not allowed to have money so I would ask then…even if it was $1 because my coworkers are constantly at the vending machine.

  16. 20

    says

    I keep the money too after looking around… The most I have found about $40 at the time (20 english pounds). I used it to buy a second hand tv tuner for my Sega Game Gear and it made my day :).

    As for larger money, yes it should be turned in, and I would never fleece a wallet and then hand it in, the whole contents gets back. I would either contact the person through any way I could in their wallet or go to the police.

    I don’t know if it’s the same in USA but in England if you find something, hand it into the police and then check back in a few months…. if un-claimed you get to keep it, this is kind of fair.

  17. 21

    says

    Simple to me if I cannot find the owner the money is mine. If I find the owner than it is my moral duty to return it to the owner ASAP. I personally would never contact the police unless I had reason to suspect the money was stolen.

  18. 22

    says

    We found $60 (3 – $20′s) lying on the beach in Belize. No one was looking for it or ever came by asking if we found anything. So, we kept it.

    There were two cruise ships at the port and I think probably somebody from the first ship lost it and didn’t realize it at the time.

  19. 23

    says

    I think it makes ethical sense to make a reasonable attempt at locating the owner. If you see the bill out of someone’s pocket, I would think there’s an ethical obligation to tap them on the shoulder. If there’s no one around, well… dinner’s on you.

  20. 24

    says

    I deal with this a lot, as I deal with Japanese tourists who don’t understand tipping where I work. It’s fairly common for them to leave an extra 100 and then you have to go back and correct the error even though they wouldn’t have a clue that they made a mistake…

    If it’s in a parking lot thought with nobody around, I’m taking it!

  21. 25

    Matthew says

    My wife once found several hundred dollar bills scattered on the floor of a comic book shop. She talked to the store’s owner and he’d had a customer in earlier that day who drove over an hour to get there and would normally buy over a thousand dollars worth of comics once a month (that’s what we were told anyway.) Well when he opened his wallet bills flew everywhere, and obviously he didn’t find them all. The comic book guy called his customer up and returned it. The owner of the money gave my wife a free comic, so that’s cool. I think your responsibility to find the owner is proportional to the value of what is found. The bigger the find the more you should do to find the owner.

  22. 26

    Katie B says

    I work at one of the retailers inside of a Walmart. One of the customers of the bank in Walmart had withdrawn $200 in cash and left the money (inside of a cash envelope) near the shoe department. Somebody located the cash envelope, but there was no identification with the money. This person promptly returned the envelope to the bank, and eventually, the customer did call to inquire whether or not someone had returned the money.

    I personally think there is a big difference between finding a $5 note and finding a wad of cash. Consider those moments little tests from Karma herself. If you do justice onto others, you will be justified for your actions. Even if the person doesn’t thank you personally, you will see the natural benefits of being an honest and caring individual. It is easy to see forgotten money as “god’s little gift” to you when you think of it in that light; but, regardless of whether or not somebody appears to be searching for that money does not matter. You did nothing to earn or deserve that money other than be in the right place at the right time. If it were me, and I found $200 outside in the woods, with no place to “turn the money in” so to speak, I will give it to someone who truly DID need the money.

  23. 28

    says

    1) Less grumbling, more thanksgiving.
    2) Less spending, more saving.
    3) Less dreaming, more working.
    4) Less depending on self, more trusting in God.
    ”What should you do less and what should you do more?”
    LESS IS MORE.

  24. 29

    Arby says

    I was at a bar with a friend once and we decided to shoot a game of pool. I looked into one of the corner pockets and there was a wad of cash. I turned to my friend and said, “You paid the tab right? Walk to the front door and when you get outside start jogging until I yell run”

    It ended up being $360 and I gave my buddy $100 to keep quiet.

    Mind you, I’ve had 2 mopeds stolen from me on prior occasions, both locked up but apparently not well enough. The $260 I ended up with doesn’t scratch what was unlawfully taken from me. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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