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Faith & Spirituality Finances & Money

I could have kept that $20. Would you have? [Ethical Quandry]

Recently while heading to the Washington Metro station kiosk to load up my SmartTrip card for my daily commute, I saw a somewhat confused couple at one of the kiosks. I don’t think they quite understood how to add money to their card, but they seemed to have figured it out and walked away.

I had just initiated the sequence to add money from my SmartBenefits account (I use WageWorks through my employer) to my card when I saw their machine spit out money. The station was pretty empty, so no one else was around to witness this event. I canceled my transaction and walked to their kiosk to see what happened. Apparently they didn’t push a button to finalize the transaction, so the machine timed out and returned the money: a crisp $20 bill!

I won’t lie because the thought crossed my mind to just throw that $20 onto my card and they wouldn’t know any better until they tried to use their card later. But I’d like to think I have higher moral standards than that (I usually do at least), so I grabbed the $20 and ran after the couple. They almost made it out of the station when I called out to them. I explained what went wrong, and then showed them the right way to add money to their card. They were very appreciative.

In my high school and college days, I know I had a “finders keepers” mentality, but I did return a wallet or two as well. It’s not pleasant to know I had a mini-dilemma in my head, even if it lasted just a second, but I’m personally glad I made the ethical decision.

But how about you? Have you had a similar experience and decided to keep the cash when you had a chance to return it directly to the owner? Have you lost cash and had it returned (or not)? Comment and let me know!

About the author

Clever Dude


  • It was 1958. Our family of five had just emigrated from England to Montreal. We didn’t have two cents to rub together. One summer day Mum found the money to take the three of us kids on a bus across town and “up the mountain” (Montreal means Royal Mount). We walked halfway up, got tired, took a break on a bench — and saw a blue $5 bill “RADIATING, GLOWING, BECKONING” near the bench. (All paper money denominations are different in Canada.) Such prospective wealth! Mum said we had to wait for five minutes, watch for an alarmed person looking for something and, if no one came, then and only then could we think about keeping the money. Those five minutes felt like five hours! No one showed up. Oh, the joy, the luxury! We all had ice cream, “crisps” (potato chips), and pop (soda) – PLUS a ride on the amusement train up and down the mountain. What a truly unforgettable, wondrous day. Thanks, Mum!

  • At one of my lowest points financially — single mom in Philly, no child support, no food stamps, no rent assistance — I went to the bank to deposit my paycheck and also to transfer $40 from savings to checking so I could pay my rent and bills. (This was years ago, before ATMs and online banking.) The teller was friendly and we were chatting while she did the transactions. At the end she handed me my two receipts and also $40 in cash.
    That was a *lot* of money to me back then — almost a week’s worth of child care! But it wasn’t mine. I said, “You’ve made a mistake. I was *transferring* $40, not withdrawing it.”
    She freaked out, and thanked me over and over, saying she would have gotten in trouble and had to make up the difference out of her own pocket. I went to pick up my daughter and we went home to our supper of homemade navy bean soup. I could not have lived comfortably with myself if I had kept someone else’s money.
    As for what to do with found money whose provenance is unknown: I like some of the ideas here, like leaving a bigger tip than usual. Personally, I save up found money (usually coins) all year long and at the end of the year donate it to a charity. This year it will be a local social service agency that runs a food bank and also gives rent and utility assistance.
    Bless all of you who are both honest and kind. We need more like you in the world!

  • I do believe in karma, if only because (like Poe’s “Telltale Heart”), YOU know that you have something that you shouldn’t have. And it is (nearly) silently eating at your conscience until you have some misfortune (because of the mental distraction??) and then you sum it up and decide, “That’s my bad karma for keeping that money that I found in the ATM”.

    I have lost $20 cash at the ballpark, and then found $24 in an envelope in a dark parking lot several months later. Karma works both ways, if you wait long enough.

  • What do you do if you just find cash ($200) and it’s at a rest area and you have no clue how long ago it was dropped??

    I found this. We’d gone to pick up a quick breakfast. I saw the money, thinking it’s a buck. Yeah, it’s 200. I am not broke. In any case – it’s a LOOOTTTTTT of money, for chrissakes.

    I waited and waited, hoping someone would come back, realizing they might have dropped it. After almost 30 minutes, we didn’t see anybody frantically looking and didn’t really feel like handing it over to some attendant who’d probably pocket it.

    I kept it, but I still feel guilty. I tried to tell myself that my intentions were good and that I really did try to return the money and genuinely wanted to … but it still made me feel weird. Someone lost $200. I didn’t even close to need that money. Maybe they did (why then, might they have been that careless) – but then again, maybe they weren’t careless. I mean – I’ve had bad days when things have gone wrong for no reason.

    All this rambling – sorry. I tried ….

  • @Archie, good job for sticking around. If you’re feeling guilty, try donating it all (and not using it as a tax deduction). Perhaps that will ease the mental pain you’re experiencing 🙂

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