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Hide money -- from yourself

Got the broke-before-payday blues? This frugal hack can help.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 23, 2012 12:34PM

Checking account all but empty a day or two before payday? What a coincidence: Your fridge and your gas tank are empty, too.

Once again you raid the coin jar for enough specie to buy a gallon of gas to get to work, plus some breakfast milk and a loaf of bread for sandwiches.

Want to stop living like this? As soon as your paycheck clears, try this frugal hack:

Buy yourself a couple of $25 gift cards to your favorite supermarket and gas station. Put them somewhere safe -- in other words, not in your wallet. Any day-before-payday shortfalls are now covered.

And after that? Head over to MSN Money’s "Saving & Budgeting" page, where you can pick up useful tips on handling your cash. A lot of folks swear by electronic tracking through sites like Bundle or, too, or budget-management software like Quicken. (Post continues after video.)

Untilyou've got your money organized the way you want it, keep doing the gift-card buys. The coin jar will thank you. 

Even after your budget is up and running, why not tuck away a couple of extra gas cards? They'll help fuel a guilt-free summer road trip.

Turn plastic into cash

Speaking of gift cards: Check your dresser, desk and file cabinet for cards you forgot you had. According to The Wall Street Journal, an estimated $41 billion worth of gift cards went unspent between 2005 and 2011.

How could this happen? Three reasons:

  • Plastic amnesia. Quick! Name every gift card you got this Christmas and identify its location (if you haven't spent it yet). See what I mean?
  • Budget shortfall. That $25 to a specialty shop isn't enough to cover a single purchase, and you can't afford to make up the difference.
  • Irreconciliable differences. Grandma meant well when she bought you a steakhouse card -- she just forgot that you're a vegetarian.

And if you do excavate unwanted plastic from your sock drawer? Sell it on the secondary market. (I did this myself, shortly after Christmas.)

The best place to start is the aggregator site Gift Card Granny, which will show you where to get top dollar for that useless-to-you scrip.

Don't spend the cash, though. Let it be the seed money for an emergency fund. After all, the day may come when your car won't start for a reason other than an empty tank.

More on MSN Money:

Feb 28, 2012 11:18PM
I can see this working for someone who is perpetually out of money at the end of every pay period and really struggling to make it.  It could help break the cycle. I prefer to keep cash at home rather than in my wallet and only grab what I need for each trip.  It limits how much I spend.  You could tuck a $20 dollar bill in a drawer and achieve the same result as the gift cards.  it all comes down to self control - which if you are really cutting it that close each month then you probably lack to begin with.  Interesting idea!
Feb 26, 2012 3:10PM
What a great idea!  Even if it doesn't work at first, at least it is a way to slow down impulse buys.
Apr 15, 2012 11:56PM

Mister Manners had this to say:

Horrible, absolutely horrible advice. Let's see: take your money out of the bank and convert it into a form that is subject to theft, destruction, expiration, and fees? And will earn you exactly 0% interest?

So, Freedman is talking about people who run out of money before the month is over--are you drawing the conclusion from this that they would otherwise earn interest?  Interest on what--the empty bank account?  Further, dollar bills are subject to theft and destruction.


The issue of expiration was covered in this article--one needs to keep track of the cards to make sure they are used before they expire.  With both groceries and gas, one is sure to need them--if a card should last long enough to nearly expire, it is still sure to be useful.  There is rarely a "fee" with groceries or gas, though of course, one would want to make sure of this.


My advice would be to imitate the old credit card trick--take a couple of $20 bills, put them in a freezer bag, and then freeze them in some water, leaving them in the freezer.  If one really, really needs that money, one will thaw it--but it won't be burning a hole in anyone's pocket.  This would avoid the problems with expiration and fees (for the most part--cash money is sometimes something that elicits fees), and probably loss and theft also.


For very scatterbrained people who cannot keep track of their funds--this is a good first step.  Having conquered the "set aside $40 for the end of the month" trick--perhaps they can then move on to others.  It takes time and baby steps to learn budgeting--this is a nice beginning.

Apr 16, 2012 12:17AM
I actually do this every payday, but not just for emergencies. I put my paychecks gas budget on it. If I don't spend as much one paycheck, I have some left over for when gas prices go back up (as we all know they will). By doing this it limits where I buy my gas but the gift card also saves me 3 cents per gallon.
Apr 15, 2012 9:52PM
Mister Manners--You're right that you draw no interest, may have fees, etc. This is advice for the people who don't have it qute as together as you. MUCH better than taking out a payday loan! I think it's a worthy idea in the right situation.
Sep 12, 2012 8:00PM
On some cards, like grocery store gift cards, you can reload the card for free and avoid paying the fee for the card again.  Just ask the clerk to give it back at the end of the transaction instead of having them throw the card away.  Some stores also give discounts if you use their card to make certain purchases, for example Walmart gives 3 cents off gas when you use their gift cards. Kroger/ King Sooper/ Dillions/ Frys/ gives 4x fuel points several times a year if you buy gift cards from them.
Feb 27, 2012 7:12PM

Horrible, absolutely horrible advice. Let's see: take your money out of the bank and convert it into a form that is subject to theft, destruction, expiration, and fees? And will earn you exactly 0% interest?


Hack indeed. Though it sounds to me like the author is the hack here.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.