At one point or another, everybody feels pinched for cash. The water heater craps out, your transmission seizes up—or friends invite you on a last-minute trip right after you've paid your rent, student loans and shelled out to fix your drowned iPhone.
If you've been there—or are there now—you're not alone. The National Financial Well-Being Survey conducted by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, found these sobering stats:
- 43% of Americans say they're struggling to pay bills.
- 34% reported going through a "material hardship" in the past year, including harsh situations such as running out of food, not being able to afford a place to live, or not having enough money to get medical treatment.
If you need money in a hurry, what can you do? The first impulse is to put it on credit, but what if your Visa is maxed out because you used it to pay MasterCard? Maybe you're holding the last $1,500 of your credit line for another emergency. Or maybe you've made the sensible vow to get debt-free and simply can't bring yourself to whip out the plastic.
Another option might be a short-term loan from one of those storefront lenders, but use extreme caution and check all your other options first. Interest and fees can pile up to the point where you're only digging yourself a deeper hole, turning a temporary financial emergency into an ongoing crisis. The CFPB found two-third of borrowers wound-up renewing those short-term loans, some as many as 10 times. There are some new consumer safeguards going into place, but grabbing money from a place advertising "Cash Now!!!" remains a bad idea.
Your best bet is to get creative. Just how creative you'll need to be depends on how much time you've got. If you need $500 to get your car out of impound by Monday or you'll lose your job, then you don't have time to start trimming your grocery bill. Likewise, if you have 60 days to cover your insurance bill, you don't have to start selling off your appliances.
Sell off gift cards
During 2016, about $1 billion (with a "B") in value went unspent on gift cards. Chances are you have one or more unused gift cards lying around in your sock drawer. Dig those out and you can sell them at online sites. You can auction your card at Raise, with the site taking a 15% cut, and you'll have to discount it by at least 5% off the face value. You also can sell cards directly to sites like Cardpool or Cardcash, but you'll take a hit, with the best deal at Cardcash netting you about 8% less than the face value of the card. Cardpool also runs locations and kiosks where you can trade in cards for cash.
Another option, if you've got a cash card that's not store-specific, like a MasterCard or Visa gift card, is to redeem it through an mobile app like Square or Google Wallet, where you lose about 3% in fees to get your money in just a few days. But that won't work with a $50 Starbucks card from Aunt Janice. So think about going low-tech—simply offer the card to your friends over email or social media, and you might find a pal who's willing to help you out at no cost because they already go out for lattes twice a day.
Give yourself a tax refund now
Do you get a good-sized tax refund after you file with the IRS every April 15? According to the IRS, the average 2016 refund was about $3,050. Get that cash now by adjusting your withholding at work. Go to the IRS withholding calculator at www.IRS.gov, plug in the information from you last pay stub and last year's tax return, and adjust your paycheck so that cash starts coming in your next paycheck. The calculator will tell you exactly how to adjust your W-4 form so you can go to your employer's website or human resources office and submit the information.
You can under-withhold for a while, if you must, but you'll have to catch up by Dec. 31 or you could face tax penalties. If you have several incomes or jobs to consider, it may be a bit more difficult to determine exact amounts. Just make sure that before you make any big adjustments, double check the math and if you have an accountant or tax preparer, making a quick call to him or her is helpful.
Instead of looking to raise cash, just stop spending it. Plan your meals out of your pantry and freezer, put your ATM card away, take a thermos of coffee instead of buying at the corner coffee shop, and put off any purchase that you possibly can. Borrow DVDs from the library instead of hitting the movies, look for free entertainment at your community center or download the podcasts you've been promising yourself you'd catch up on. If you will have expenses, like gas or parking, estimate those amounts, set the money aside in cash. You probably can't skip paying your bills, but decide if it might worth it to pay the water bill in two weeks and get with a late fee if that gives you the cash you need now. (See also - How to make a budget)
Literally. You can sell your blood, sperm, eggs or even hair if you're willing to put up with the hassle, or submit your entire body for a clinical trial of some type of drug or for some type of medical study.
With plasma, you can find a donor center to give blood through DonatePlasma, Octopharmaplasma, Biolifeplasma, Grifolsplasma or CSLplasma. You'll get about $20 to $50 per donation and can give as often as twice a week, subject to your health. Look for coupons online and in local papers that give bonuses to first-time donors.
Medical research is another field where professionals are looking for healthy volunteers, in studies that can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on the requirements and the length and complexity of the assignments. You can check out Clinicaltrials, CenterWatch or by checking with your local medical centers and university and research hospitals. A web search can also turn up specific drug companies or other medical manufacturers looking for study volunteers.
Women can sell their eggs for $3,000 to $6,000 up to six times, according to TheWorldEggBank. But there are restrictions on health and your reimbursement amount is determined by medical guidelines, and the wage scale and cost of living in your state. It can be a complicated process that can include taking fertility drugs and making multiple doctor visits. You also can search the web for clinics in your area.
For men, the option of donating sperm is less complex, but also pays less — $35 to $50 per donation, with a six-month quarantine period during which you aren't paid. You can find a listing of clinics at SpermBankDirectory.
Finally, if you've got at least 10 inches of hair and don't mind getting a new look, you can sell your cut, untreated hair through BuyandSellHair. You'll have to register and your hair must be healthy and undyed. The site charges $14.50 for a three-month listing.
Surf for dollars
All kinds of web sites exists to find out as much as possible about what consumers do, where they spend, and what they like or hate. You can check out simple surveys at sites like MySurvey and ValuedOpinions for about $5 a shot. Other sites are Opinion Outpost, SurveySpot, and SurveySavvy.
A favorite site of personal finance bloggers is Swagbucks, which rewards you with points you redeem for cash via Paypal or gift cards to Amazon and other retailers. There's also Ipsos Panel, Survey Junkie, Springboard Panel and Inbox Dollars. Inbox Dollars also pays you for using coupons, playing games and other online activities used for market research. There are others, so be sure to look around.
Automate your savings
In the words of Nike, just do it. If you've got some time, figure out your money goal and your deadline, and put aside enough each week to meet your target. The best way is to automate your savings to a separate bank account—or an online bank, which may actually pay some interest—and to have the money automatically sucked out of your checking account every payday. This is the personal finance concept of "pay yourself first." With the money gone and out of sight, you'll learn to manage week-to-week by living on little less, without having to draw up a budget and track your spending and comb through your expenses. This approach forces you to save and make it work out, which you won't even notice after a few weeks.
Clean out your closet
Turning clothes you no longer wear into a few spare bucks is an obvious way to raise some cash, whether it's through a garage sale, listings on eBay or Craigslist, or turning your duds over to a consignment store. Those approaches can take time and be complicated—you need to ship stuff you sell online, manage your listings and wait for them to sell. One way around that for fashionistas is a network of outlets working with Plato's Closet. Their 450 stores look for current styles, no more than 12 to 18 months old, in good condition and pay cash on the spot.
Cut your bills
It seems obvious, but the best way to increase your cash stash is to spend less of it. Comb through all your recurring monthly bills or use a service such as Billy or Squeeze and look for things like unused subscriptions and services, and whether you can get those goods or services cheaper. If your cellphone data plan routinely comes in under you limit monthly, switch to a smaller, less expensive plan. Shop your home and auto insurance, look at your cable, Internet and phone bills and see what you can save with a few phone calls. Then have that new-found money directly deposited to a savings account, so it doesn't get swept away with all your other regular spending.
Change you can believe in (and spend)
You may not think loose change amounts to much money, but if you've got a couple of penny jars sitting around the house, a stash of change from the drive-through piling up in your car's cup holders, and a pile of coins on your dresser, at the bottom of a few old purses or lingering in a desk drawer, gather it all up. You don't need to go through the tedious process of counting and rolling the coins. Your bank may offer coin-counting for free or a nominal charge, and some credit unions have free machines you can use. There also are the Coinstar machines at your local grocery store. While effective and convenient, these can be expensive—extracting an 11.9% service fee. There is a way around that, though—convert your coins to one of the e-gift cards Coinstar offers, and there's no fee. The cards include Amazon, Best Buy, Sears and Lowe's, so if you need cash to replace a busted dishwasher or some other purchase, it can be a good option.
If you've got a medical Flexible Spending Account through your job, don't overlook the money that regularly piles up there. Workers can set aside up to $2,600 a year tax free for qualified health costs, but there's one catch—if you don't use the money by the end of the year (plus a grace period in most plans), you forfeit all or much of that money to the plan. Since FSAs can cover everything from over-the-counter allergy medicine and breastfeeding classes to eyeglasses and massage therapy, look for medical bills you can turn in to get money back now. If you have a Health Savings Account through your medical plan, there's no limit on when you have to use money, but it also covers many common medical expenses that you can repay to yourself just by submitting your receipts.
If things are dire, see what you can go without. Cancel your landline and rely just on your cellphone. Ditch cable, mow your own lawn, change your own oil, shine your own shoes and unclog the toilet with a $12 plunger instead of a $65 service call to the plumber. Whenever you cut an expense, set that money aside for your cash goal. Research finds that seeing cash build up is more motivating that numbers on a screen, so dedicate a box or jar when you can see the money growing as you save.
Look for lost cash
Earlier this year, 1 million taxpayers lost out on more than $1 billion from the Internal Revenue Service because they never claimed their 2013 federal tax refunds within the three-year time limit. Other unclaimed money can include utility deposits, forgotten bank accounts, refunds and other money held in your name but never collected. Besides federal sources, each state also maintains its own process for finding your unclaimed property, often left behind when people move and forget to collect refunded deposits or state tax refunds. You can find an entire list at www.usa.gov/unclaimed-money, including links to states where you've lived.
Join the gig economy
Whether it's driving for Lyft or Uber, selling homemade crafts on Etsy, selling your photos to Shutterstock, renting out your car or tools, mowing lawns, renting out a spare room on AirBnB or helping people move, you've probably got some skill or goods you can sell into the growing gig economy, aka "side hustles" or "alternative employment." The number of opportunities is growing daily, although some might not be worth your while. You can check out this list or this one at SideHustleNation.com for ideas. Don't forget that income from these sources will be taxable.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on November 7, 2017, and has been updated.