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Cache yourself some cash

Having a little ready cash at home means you're, well, ready -- no matter what happens. But where should you hide it?

By Donna_Freedman Feb 14, 2011 8:56AM

The other day I used a Groupon voucher to get myself a discounted massage. The practitioner didn't take debit or credit cards. Time to raid the cash cache.

For the past six years I've kept a stash of ones, fives, 10s and 20s 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 having to take.

Another reader stashed money in his car as well as at home, in case he wanted to help someone in need or needed to 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 homeowners or renters 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 tight, 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 afterward, 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 $10 and $1 bills.

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 and her boys. 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 some British money for my next 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.

Donna Freedman writes a personal-finance column for MSN Money and also blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.


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