Cache some cash.

Yesterday I used a Groupon voucher to get myself a discounted massage. The practitioner didn’t take credit cards. Time to raid the cash cache.

For the past six years I’ve kept a stash of ones, fives, tens and twenties hidden in my apartment. I believe in having legal tender on hand for emergencies.

Call it pin money, bail money or get-outta-town money. If you’re a numismatist, call it a collection of state quarters. Having a little ready cash means you’re, well, ready.

You should be ready. Uncle Sam says so. Check the Get a Kit section of the “Ready America” web page, which recommends keeping some folding green alongside the food, water, crank radio and moist towelettes (aka “shower in a pouch”).

After all, some emergencies entail power outages – so long, debit cards.

Cab rides and hurricanes

The government site doesn’t say how much money. Originally I aimed for $100, but that was back when I was still paying off my divorce lawyer. These days I want at least $300.

Your mileage may vary. What makes me comfortable might be way too much – or not enough – for you.

When I wrote about this subject in the past, readers told me about their own magic numbers. One woman wanted enough to pay for the most expensive cab rides she could imagine (e.g., missed the last train home to the suburbs).

Another reader stashed money in his car as well as at home, in case he wanted to help someone in need or pay cash for a tow truck.

A hurricane-country resident made it his business to keep a few thousand in folding green. When evacuation was necessary during a particularly bad storm, that amount filled half a dozen gas cans and paid for food and hotel rooms. And if it’s not needed, the money can go back into the bank once the mean season has passed.

Incidentally, if cash gets stolen or burns up in a fire it might be covered under your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Check your policy.

How to build a fund

If you’re flush, simply go to the bank and withdraw $300 (or whatever), specifying small bills. If times are right, try one or more of these ideas:

  • Take a dollar or two from your wallet every other night.
  • Get an extra $5 or $10 every second or third time you pay with debit at the supermarket or drugstore.
  • Throw change in a jar for a couple of weeks. Take it to the store and ask for ones and fives. Repeat until you’ve reached your comfort level. (Note: Do this during a quieter time of the day, not when lines are long and tempers are short.)
  • If your job includes tips, set aside at least 2% of each night’s take.
  • Quit smoking! Or eating candy bars. Or buying a soda from the machine every afternoon. Stash the ones (or fives) you would have spent. (Try to stay away from the coffin nails, chocolate and cola afterwards, too.)

Where to hide it

There’s nothing a burglar likes more than a big ol’ roll of cash: profitable and portable!

Coming up with a foolproof hiding place is tough, since practiced thieves know how to search. The average burglar spends 10 minutes or less in your place but there are certain places they’re always going to look. Don’t leave cash in a dresser drawer, a desk or a file cabinet – or under the mattress.

I’ve heard people suggest these hiding places:

  • The freezer. If it were me, I’d fill an empty vegetable bag with cash plus some foam peanuts for show.
  • The linen closet. Way in the back, between the Christmas tablecloth and napkins, maybe?
  • Under the catbox.
  • In the cupboard or pantry. Open your next cake-mix or mac ’n’ cheese box from the bottom rather than the top, put in the money, tape it shut and stick it way in the back on a high shelf.
  • Inside the canner or stockpot, or in a seldom-used appliance stuck in an out-of-the-way place.
  • Tucked into the sanitary-napkin bag or the tampon box.
  • In an envelope taped under the garage workbench.
  • If you own a lot of books, put some money in one or two – burglars probably won’t have time to check them all.
  • Inside a throw pillow, if you have one with a zippered cover.

Note: None of these come close to describing where my cash is hidden, so don’t bother breaking in and checking the bookcase or the broccoli bag.

Important safety tips:

Don’t forget where you hid the money.

Don’t tell your kids where it is. Seriously. The sound of the ice-cream truck turns angels into thieving li’l devils.

If you have yard sales every so often, make sure you don’t sell that stockpot as-is.

In case of emergency

This money is subject to withdrawal but I always put it back. When my daughter and son-in-law were packing to move to Arizona they sold a few household items on Craigslist; if buyers showed up without exact change, Abby walked down the hall for some tens and ones.

Sometimes I’ll come across a coupon for a Dairy Queen Blizzard or some other fun, caloric treat. If I don’t have a fiver in my wallet, I’ll pull one out of the cache and mail it plus the coupon to my niece. What’s life without a little sin?

I traveled a lot in 2010, sometimes with only a week or two between trips. On a couple of occasions I got my walking-around money from the cash cache.

In fact, I may have overdone it. After taking out the massage money I counted the remainder and it was much lower than I’d like. I have to go to the bank anyway to pick up my British money for the trip, so I’ll get some greenbacks while I’m there.

Having the cash cache makes me feel more secure. I suggest you start your own. That coffee-can ATM may save your butt in an emergency, whether it be an earthquake, flu epidemic or layoff. Or the sudden need for a discounted massage.

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  1. Holly Samlan

    I am no spring chicken as you know. My Mom always had a double cash stash-a bit in an old unused purse in her dresser and quite a bit more in a pair of out of date shoes of Dad’s in a box in the closet.

    I have a cash stash which I will be dividing & moving as it is WAAY too much to have in one so readily acessable place.

    However, I have 2 married adult daughters who in combo w/their spouses could NOT buy a gallon of gas without credit or debit cards. Just do not understand that mind set.

  2. I call it our ‘petty cash’. It has come in handy when the neighbor kids roam around with their fundraisers, or we wanted to take an impromptu walk to the ice cream shop.

    It has gotten low. I really need to replenish it. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I had to look up numismatist lol ~ I had no idea what that was.

    Thanks for giving me something else to think about today 🙂 We don’t ever keep any money in the house but IMO that’s not smart. I am definitely going to build up a $500 stash over the next few months to keep here in the house in the event of emergency. You just never know and we’ve been very fortunate up ’til now to never have experienced ATM power outs. Yikes.

    I also like your tip re: sending coupon and cash for ice cream to your niece. That’s really sweet. I’m gonna borrow that one too.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Quest: My niece has two kids and is going through a divorce. Money’s a bit tight, so every now and then it’s nice to surprise the kids with an ice cream.
      Sometimes I buy them underwear. I think they prefer the DQ Blizzards.
      Thanks for reading.

  4. lostAnnfound

    @ Quest: Another reason I like to read here because Donna uses words I don’t usually hear and I learn some new vocabulary.

    I usually have about $100 – $150 stashed here. I guess I really should let my husband know about it just in case I’m not available here if an emergency arises.

  5. We have a stash we started a couple years ago. Its smart to have it here just for emergencies. I plan to keep adding to it each payday.
    It has come in handy when the in-laws run out of money between social security paydays too.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Laura P: Adding to it each payday is a good way to go. When you reach your comfort level, why not take what you would have put in and put it in your EF, or start a whole new account? Just sayin’.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  6. I just love reading your updates:) I also love how you referred to cigarettes as coffin nails! And that’s coming from an ex smoker. You rock Donna! From your neighbor down in Federal Way. Have a safe trip.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Msjbelle: Yo, Federal Way! If you come to Seattle, drop me a line at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com. We’ll have a frugal meet-up. McDonald’s has free soft-drink refills. 🙂

  7. a friend told me…
    him and his buddy were backpacking around europe with there trusty debit cards when disaster struck. they were kidnapped and the tugs wanted US cash to let them go (i forgot the amount). well, his buddies mom was super paranoid so, she sewed like $500 into his jacket lining. yup, he ripped out the money and they were running like hell out of there.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jimmy: Now THAT’S an emergency fund! In retrospect, Mama wasn’t “super paranoid” at all, was she?
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  8. I don’t feel safe keeping more then $40 on hand here, but I do try and have that much for the occasional instance where plastic does not work.

  9. Great idea. I never really think about saving cash…mostly cause I don’t want to think about why I’ll need it..you know, like the end of the world or something. 🙂

  10. Victoria Fox

    Hence The Spare Change Challenge, The Dollar Bill Challenge and The $5.00 Bill or Whatever You Can Manage to Stash Challenge:) I don’t even know how to begin to tell you how many times the cash came in handy since Paul passed on in the last nine months!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Victoria: Your real-life experiences make your advice even more worthwhile. Road-tested, so to speak.

  11. >>Call it pin money, bail money or get-outta-town money.

    Best one I’ve heard: “mad money.”

  12. Once again, I heartily agree with your line of thinking. I call mine “secret stash”…..you never know when you are going to need a few bucks – Niece came home on college break and favorite Aunt always slips her gas money..wallet empty? No prob, she always has a big grin when I walk into another room and come out handing her a few bucks……is there an ATM in the other side of the house?

  13. I like the idea of a cash stash, too, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet – gotta get the husband on board. I read somewhere not long ago about getting the $1 coins – if you buy them in bulk from the treasury (I think 250 or more?) you get a slight percentage off and they’re shipped to your house free. The idea is to get them out in the public, so what I might do is trade out every $1 bill that lands in my wallet for a coin. One thing I like about the coin route is, they (probably?) won’t burn up in a fire, nor will they be shredded by my overzealous paper-fiend dogs. Also, the prospect of a bag of gold coins makes my inner Scrooge McDuck very, very happy.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Bashtree: I’ve been thinking about going the dollar-coin route myself ever since reading about it on the Bargaineering site. Doing so would mean 250 more “Thank You” points or 250 more frequent-flier miles, plus another thing to blog about. 🙂
      It would take some work to remember to use $250 in coins — but on the other hand, they could make up at least part of your cash cache.
      Thanks for reminding me. I’ll write it on my calendar for when I get back from my trip.

  14. Update: it’s not that you get a percentage off from the treasury, it’s that if you buy with a cash-back credit card, you get that percentage back. Oops 🙂

  15. We have emergency cash hanging around the house, in the craziest, hardest to find spot ever. But I always worry – what if the emergency is an earthquake, and we can’t get to the money? We have a lot, too, because we’re too lazy to go the bank – so what if theres a fire, (emergency!) & we can’t get to it & we didn’t have insurance so then we’re homeless?
    Apparently I have anxiety issues, haha. I think I’ll start stashing mine somwhere around the bed so if it’s in the middle of the night it’s grab n go.
    Interesting, though!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Daisy: How about these near-the-bed spots?
      In an envelope under the nightstand. In an emergency, just shove the nightstand over and grab the loot.
      In an envelope taped to the underside of the box spring.
      At the bottom of the tissue box, i.e., underneath the pile of tissues.
      Now: Let’s hope thieves aren’t reading this.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  16. @Donna – here in Denver, the $1 coins are common. Not nearly catching up with the bills, but not freaky-foreign like they were when I lived in NC. I also like the idea of keeping a stash in the car to help folks out – I have a change cup where quarters go, and another handful could become a part of our winter car emergency kit pretty easily.

  17. I have $145.00 so far in stashed $5 bills. I would like to have at least $1,000 in the house in case of an emergency. It will take me a while to put that together, although I could always pull cash out of my savings. I think I enjoy saving the $5’s instead…:)! Love the ideas for storage…

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sharon: Definitely get some ones, though. Not everything in a power failure/civil insurrection/whatever will cost $5. 😛
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  18. Victoria Fox

    Donna: Isn’t it a relief in itself to not have to be a slave to plastic? I’m glad that all of my consumer debt is paid now, with the exception of my condo. Just look at all the comments about folks saving. I read all the comments again and it just put the wind back into my sails:)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Victoria Fox: You kick frugal butt. Keep on inspiring us, lady.
      And yeah, I’m so very glad not to be carrying any consumer debt. I don’t own a condo or any kind of home, but that may change some day. In fact, I’m pretty sure it will.

  19. Vicky Fox

    On the snarky side, no one can tell me what to do now, too:)

  20. My problem with having cash is that I spend it. So I try not to carry too much at a time. I once tried doing the putting stuff on credit cards, thinking I’d be adverse enough that I wouldn’t spend as much, but found, instead, that I have very poor “plastic memory.” Any suggestions?

    • Donna Freedman

      @MK: Carry an envelope with you. Put in every receipt you create that day, even if it’s for a pack of gum. Add it up each night and put it into categories (e.g., meals, snacks, clothes, groceries). After a month’s worth of spending, look at how much went into each category. Can you live with this level of spending? Can you find other ways to meet your needs?
      Or: Each time you buy something, put the receipt in the envelope and write down how much you spent on the outside of the envelope. Add it up as you go. Maybe by the sixth purchase of the day you’ll look at the total and think, “Oh, crap, I’ve already spent $57 in three hours. Maybe I don’t need this coffee/magazine/blouse.”
      Worth a shot.
      Also, it’s a good way to give envelopes one more use before you recycle them. Use the ones that you get with bills, letters, junk mail, etc.
      Good luck.

      • bblz2259

        This is GREAT except when your husband blows all the money you’ve saved LOL. It is sooo hard trying to save with a spender in the house. I’d welcome any ideas.

  21. I call it my Whatever Fund. I read about this idea on the Dollar Stretcher website (which I recommend) a few years back and it’s really come in handy. Every once in a while, my credit union’s atm’s don’t work, so I dip into the fund for the cash I need to tide me over.
    Money’s been so tight lately because I’ve had to replace appliances and electronics as well as pay for some car repairs. Instead of dipping into savings, I can dip into my stash cache.
    I built it gradually by adding $1 and $5 bills to it every Friday after work. I’ll sometimes swap out the ones and fives for twenties. I currently have around $150 in a hollowed-out book in one of my four bookcases. I can’t imagine a thief wanting to hassle with going thru my entire collection to find that particular book.

  22. Holly Samlan

    Finally went over my COH. Found I had WAAAY too much on hand – >$1000. Half is going into my savings account today. Of the remainder I think I will use some for weekly house & personal needs cash. I suspect I can get along w/just a couple 100 in COH.

  23. Love the storage ideas – I have a large spare change jar that I add to regularly, but it would be nice not to have to buy gas with quarters in an emergency. LOL. Sounds like I need to supplement that with some actual greenbacks.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Shellye: Trade in some of that change for dollar bills (or fivers) and leave them in the jar.
      But how do you hide a jar that size from burglars? 🙁
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  24. Jeanne B.

    What I’d like to know is, where did my parents hide their money?

    I inherited their home when they died. They were both teenagers during the Great Depression. Dad was persistently budget-conscious, and they were Very Careful With Money. So I just KNOW that somewhere, in this 1,700-square-foot home, there have to be wads of emergency cash tucked away somewhere.

    I’ve looked in the obvious places. I’ve tried thinking like Dad. They were getting on in age, so it would have to be accessible for old people in a hurry. Haven’t found a dime (yet). Any thoughts on where to look? Where did your grandparents stash their cash (besides under the mattress)?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jeanne B: Liz Pulliam Weston did an article that mentioned estate-sale specialists looking in the damnedest places for hidden cash — and finding it!
      Among the ones I remember:
      Sifting through bags of flour, sugar and other dry goods (cash in plastic bags tucked halfway down)
      On rafters in the attic
      In between pages of books
      I’d also check in the garage (taped under the workbench? in cans of miscellaneous hardware?) and on the garage rafters.
      Under the carpet?
      In between stacks of holiday linens? (Not everyone bothers to take out the Christmas tablecloth or napkins)
      In the sewing basket?
      In the toolbox?
      Or maybe they just spent it all on (privately) riotous living.
      Good luck!

      • Jeanne B.: at the bottom of the bathroom trashcan, under the trash bag or taped to the bottom, inside the teabag canister, inside the Maxwell House Coffee can, and I can’t remember the last one.

  25. Donna,

    I’ve read elsewhere that it’s also a good idea to keep a small cash stash on hand, that *is* in obvious places where a burglar would look. Basically, a smallest amount possible that would also agree with your place/lifestyle (i.e. having only one $10 when you live in a posh home is going to leave them thinking there is definitely more cash around). The idea is that when they find this, it will encourage them to leave, and not keep looking for the bigger stash. …or I suppose one could just hide *all* their money in VERY good hiding spots so a burglar wouldn’t find any of it… Your thoughts?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kenia: If you have a nice house and they find only three tens or twenties, they might keep looking. Or they might get really pissed off and trash the joint on the way out.
      Example: A reader talked about putting the cash stash under the catbox. Not only did the burglars look under there (!), they tossed the cat box all over the place and ground the cat feces into the carpet.
      I think you should do what works for you. If that means hiding a little money in plain sight, that will give you peace of mind. And it might work sometimes, e.g., a young teen who breaks in and grabs your laptop and the $20 in the cookie jar. Heck, I got burgled in Philly when I was a struggling single mother; the person took my radio, several T-shirts and all the change from the baby’s piggy bank. I guess it was apparently that there really wasn’t anything else.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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