There's something about "found money" that feels especially good. Perhaps because it isn't burdened with the memory of hard work or responsibility, it feels a little special. Then again, maybe it feels special because it is special; it's a little extra money that didn't require any particular extra work but it spends just as well as hard-earned cash. With that in mind, let's consider some of the personal financial windfalls that can put a few extra dollars in your pocket.
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A Well in Your Backyard?
The discovery of oil or gas underneath your property may not transform your family into the Beverly Hillbillies, but it can definitely put some extra cash in your pocket. Farmers, ranchers, and other landowners in many parts of the country are finding energy company representatives knocking on their doors, ready to write checks worth thousands of dollars per acre as signing bonuses for leases that give the companies the right to look (and lift) oil, gas and other resources. (Calculate how much your property will need to appreciate to cover the costs of owning it. Check out Will You Break Even On Your Home?)
Not all of these deals offer the same risk/benefit reward to the property owner. There is no such thing as an "average" royalty or signing bonus because so much depends on the prospects of the area in question and the bargaining power (or desperation) of the energy company. Still, a lease in a hot area can offer thousands of dollars per acre in bonuses and royalties in excess of 10%; leases in less productive regions may only offer a few hundred bucks in bonuses for the right to trial exploratory wells.
There is a huge difference between having some gas wells on your property and an open pit zinc mining operation. All the same, it can be an incredible windfall for those lucky enough to live in the right place at the right time.
The Rich Uncle
It is not all that common to find oneself unexpectedly listed as an inheritor to an asset, but it does happen. What's more, even knowing that you are in someone's will does not mean that you have any sense of what they have or may wish to bequeath to you. Consequently, these can be surprising announcements that can leave you with a completely unexpected windfall. Cash inheritances are fairly straightforward (pay your debts, top of your investments, so on), but inherited property can be a bit more work. All the same, real estate and furniture can be quite valuable indeed.
Although past surveys have suggested that many people could expect to receive inheritances of tens of thousands of dollars, it seems unlikely. With the impact of the housing bubble, health care expenses, longer lifespans, larger families and less importance attached to passing along estates, the vast majority of people will receive no inheritance at all. Still, more than 1% of the population can expect to receive over $100,000, which means more than three million people are looking at a six-figure inheritance at some point in their life.
Scratch and Win
Playing the lottery is a bad idea, but the reality is that people do win. Winning the enormous multi-million-dollar awards that get people photographed holding giant checks is rare, but many people do win smaller amounts with the scratch cards. Add to that the various sweepstakes, jackpots, and other promotional awards, and there are quite a few people who gain a windfall through these low-probability games.
The same is true too for gambling. Gambling can be a valid form of entertainment in controlled amounts, but it is unwise to go into it with an expectation of winning. Still, like the lottery, people do win. Keep in mind that these winnings are a one-shot deal, though, and that the writers of the winner's checks also report them to the IRS.
Treasure in Your Attic
Sometimes your own belongings can surprise you. Everybody fears buying a money pit when they buy a house, but sometimes the reverse is true - sometimes you find that you bought a house that was better than the seller realized. A new cookie-cutter house in a planned subdivision is not likely to offer any great surprises, but an older house just may have incredible hardwood floors lurking under that ratty old carpet. Find a quality hardwood floor and the value of the house may go up $10,000. Find an old high-quality floor made of rare hardwood (say in a house 100 years old) and that floor alone could be worth an extra $30,000 or more.
Along similar lines, you may find that the dining set you got as a hand-me-down from grandma is actually valuable as an antique or near-antique. If you are in possession of old furniture (that you yourself did not buy), do a little online searching and you may find you hold something worth much more than you thought. Likewise, never pass up an opportunity to go through an older family member's book collection or attic - there are more than enough stories of discoveries of rare manuscripts, first editions, master paintings and so on to make the work worthwhile. A German woman found an oil painting by Millais worth $80,000 in her attic in 2008, a $60 million Cezanne was bought in England for $160 in March of this year, and even something more mundane, like a first edition Catcher In The Rye, can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. (Pawnshops provide easy access to short-term loans, but they aren't the only option. See Should You Pawn Your Valuables?)
From People-Carrier to Collectible
Properly maintained, a car can actually become more valuable with time. The average Toyota Camry or Ford Fusion is not going to cut it; it takes a relatively rare car to become more valuable over time. Still, vintage cars like Ferraris, MGs, and even Lancias can be worth quite a bit of money in the secondary market. A quality Lancia Stratos can go for well more than $100,000 today, while a Ferrari Dino could be worth quite a bit as well. When that Stratos was new in the early '70s, it went for less than $12,000, while the Dino went for about $9,000.
The key here is scarcity and maintenance. It is absolutely essential to keep the car in as prime condition (and keep as much of the original material, like the owner's manual) as possible. Moreover, remember the importance of rarity - if you see a couple of the same model sitting on the streets in your neighborhood, it probably will not become vintage.
An Unexpected Career Path
Hobbies are supposed to be fun diversions from the workaday world, but sometimes they can turn into income sources of their own. Not every great writer or artist started out with the intention of being a professional, but sometimes lightning strikes in a good way. Likewise, tutoring in a foreign language or starting a part-time business out of the home may not be a hobby per se, but there's a funny correlation between truly enjoying something, being good at it and finding that financial rewards follow.
The Bottom Line
While spending every waking moment in the pursuit of more money is fodder for becoming some sort of Dickensian caricature, there is nothing wrong with picking low-hanging fruit when it comes into view. None of the financial windfalls here are something to be expected or commonplace, they can and do happen. It's the savvy person, then, who is always looking around and spotting the opportunities that others may miss. After all, while chasing a dollar may be questionable, hardly anybody objects to catching one that is heading straight for you. (Lighten your load for a heavier wallet. We'll provide helpful tips to ensure a successful sale. Check out In A Cash Crunch? Hold A Yard Sale.)