3 Ways the Government Made Me Richer

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It’s supposed to be a punchline: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” But for me, it’s not a line at all. While many Americans just paid their taxes and might be wondering where their money went, I’ve already cashed in on these little-known free services…

 1. Energy audits

If you’ve never heard of an energy audit, it’s not at all like a tax audit. Your state’s Department of Energy Resources is probably like mine in Massachusetts: It works with local utility companies to offer freebies and incentives so you’ll save electricity. One of those is the home energy audit, which is just a fancy title for finding out how you use electricity, then offering ways to save.

Last winter, I called an 800 number I found on the Mass Save website. A couple of weeks later, a nice man was at my house. He spent 90 minutes drawing up a personalized report explaining how I could become more energy-efficient. He even replaced my incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs), added door sweeps, did some caulking, and installed programmable thermostats and low-flow shower heads. All for free.

He also pointed out that my unused second refrigerator was costing me money. Someone at work had given me this old appliance, but I hardly ever used it. He gave me a $50 cash rebate for recycling it, and estimated I’d save $150 a year on my electric bill.

So let’s add up my free visit…

  • Four programmable thermostats: $49.99 each (I have zone heating and cooling in my home – another energy saver.)
  • Two low-flow shower heads: $34.97 each
  • Three door sweeps: $10.70 each
  • CFLs: $150 worth
  • Recycling fridge: $200 ($50 cash plus $150 savings on electric bill)
  • Getting year-round savings on my utilities bills without hiring a handyman: priceless

That’s more than $600 in savings, plus lower energy bills in the future.

2. Soil analysis and advice

I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so I can get my hands dirty – in my garden. It’s a source of both pride and produce, but my beautiful flowers, herbs, and vegetables aren’t a credit to just my green thumb. I received free advice and a low-cost soil analysis from my local Department of Agriculture Extension Service.

For $10, the analysis let me know what’s in my soil – its acidity, nutrients, and contaminants. And the folks who performed the analysis also told me what fertilizers I needed to start using and which ones I needed to stop using. All of this came from the Cooperative Extension System, a nationwide network based at land-grant universities around the country, with regional offices staffed by experts. Find the extension service office nearest you by using their search tool.

Warning: Some local lawn services offer “free soil testing,” but there’s often a catch – you must sign up for their service or at least listen to their sales pitch. And not surprisingly, the test determines that you need the products they’re selling. So stick with the government, which (in this case anyway) has no reason to lie to you.

3. Unclaimed money

“State agencies are currently holding more than $32 billion in unclaimed property,” Money Talks News reported four months ago in Finding Unclaimed Cash.

But even with those odds, I knew I’d never find my name on any list of unclaimed property, because I keep such a close tab on all my money. But it couldn’t hurt to look. So I checked out National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, which lists all the unclaimed property in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. To my surprise, I did find my name.

Years ago, I left my job at Home Depot and picked up my last check – or what I thought was my final one. Turns out, the company issued another check for my unused vacation time. That check sat in the store until it was eventually sent to the state treasury as “abandoned funds.”

After fetching that check, I investigated every state I ever lived in – and found another instance of the same thing. I also checked under my children’s names and found a small savings account opened when my oldest daughter was a baby (she turns 36 next month) that we forgot when we left the state. The total for all three claims was $358.

The most common types of abandoned property are utility deposits, credit balances, inactive checking and savings accounts, uncashed dividends, payroll or cashier’s checks, and life insurance policy proceeds. When making a claim, make sure the website ends in a “.gov” – you don’t need a website that offers to find your missing money for a fee.

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