Magic Money: 5 True Tales of Unexpected Windfalls

By Erika Morphy

NEW YORK (Learnvest)—Who doesn't want a little more magic in their lives? And the best kind of hocus-pocus is not a card trick, a rabbit pulled from a hat or a disappearing act ... it's magic money.

The cash could be the small inheritance from a distant relative that buys a nice dinner, a couple bucks you found in the dryer on laundry day, or just a lucky penny staring up at you when you need a good omen.

Whatever the source, we love it.

In fact, we tend to spend small windfalls differently than our everyday money. Harvard University researchers found that when shoppers received an unexpected $10 off at online grocers, they spent an average of $1.59 more than they would have otherwise without the discount. That's because of a behavioral finance quirk known as "mental accounting," which means we treat money differently depending on the source.

So if you get some magic money, use it wisely or at least understand when you're splurging.

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We asked five people who have received a money surprise to tell us what it means to them and how they dealt with it.

Cash From the Past

Carlton Schofield, a 76-year-old artist, lives in the row house he grew up in Washington, D.C. He moved there to take care of his sick mother and stayed after she passed away. Schofield delights in occasionally finding some of his family's stashes of cash they left behind.

"My family, especially my mother, had the habit of hiding small sums of cash for a rainy day in odd places," he says. "So sometimes I find them, these little wads. I like to think of it as my relatives sending me a little something when I need it."

Recently, when cleaning out a jumbled closet of a seldom-used room in the house, he found a fifty dollar bill in the pocket of his mother's old coat. "I swear when I found it I could feel my mother smiling about it," he says.

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The "Oil Heiress"

Not every heiress is rolling in the dough. Just ask Carrie Sloan, editor-in-chief of LearnVest. "For as long as I can remember, I've been an accidental 'oil heiress,'" she says. "Twice a year, without fail, I get 'magic money' in the form of a roughly $90 check from royalties on one-millionth of a share in an oil well that I inherited from a literal rich great-uncle."

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But Sloan maximizes the small bequest. "When we got engaged, it was fun to inform my husband that he was marrying an heiress! But I treat this money just like I do any extra that comes my way," she says. "Whether it's a bonus, or my little geyser in Texas, 10% goes to a fun splurge, and the rest gets socked away in savings."

The Good Samaritan

Found money is not always a windfall. Lee Schultz of Diamondhead, Miss., discovered a zippered Victoria Secret's pouch filled with $10,000 in cash and checks in his front yard one Saturday afternoon when he went to retrieve the newspaper.

"I was amazed," says Schultz, an 85-year-old retiree. "You hear of things like this happening, but you never think it will happen to you."

He noticed that the checks in the pouch were in a woman's name and from a local bank. He dropped off the pouch at a bank branch because he didn't want to hold on to money that wasn't his. "I figured that the woman to whom the checks were written was also the owner of the cash. That maybe it was her account and she was going to make a big deposit," he says.

Schultz never heard from the bank or the woman whose name was on the checks. "Nothing, not even a thank you," he says. Next time he finds a stranger's money, he plans to take it to the sheriff ... though we're not sure we'd be that good the second time around!

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The Accidental Pensioner

Remember your first real summer job? It was an exciting time, even if the wages were low. Jacqui Kenyon, an editorial assistant at LearnVest, was a counselor at a town-run summer day camp on Cape Cod for three months when she was 14 years old.

"I worked from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, and made $8 per hour. Ka-ching!" she says. "I spent my working hours playing dodgeball, dizzy bat and capture the flag, as well as making sure no one ate his or her glue sticks during arts and crafts."

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Kenyon, now 23, recently received a call from her parents. They had a letter for her from the town of Harwich, Mass. Inside the envelope was a statement for her 457(b) plan, which is similar to a 401(k). Her balance had reached $114.83. Kenyon had forgotten that the town withheld money from her paycheck for the retirement plan.

"Ever since, that money has been growing slowly but surely," she says. "Though it's far from a fortune, I find it so sweet and old-school that I can't bear to roll it over into my 401(k) just yet."

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Hitting the Jackpot

The house doesn't always win. Bob Jerroux, a 58-year-old reporter, has been regularly losing small amounts of money on the slot machines when he goes to Las Vegas to cover industry conferences.

To hedge his bets, Jerroux, a Washington, D.C., resident, keeps to a strict budget. "I might give myself $60 to play for a trip, and I am very good about cutting it off when I reach that limit," he says.

Every trip he would hit that limit, except one time before the holidays in 2010. He suddenly won $800 on the slots. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "All those years of losing small sums, and I made out like a bandit finally."

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Then temptation struck. "I had a momentary flash of taking that money and trying to double or triple it," he says. "I would have lost it—of course I would have." Jerroux resisted the urge and spent his winnings on gifts for his family instead. "That was a great, generous Christmas," he says.

Small windfalls don't have to go to waste if you have a budget and a financial plan in place, and the will to stick with it.

What's your favorite magic money experience?

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