Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/13/2009 8:33:45 AM ET 2009-07-13T12:33:45

Timothy Fleming used to hide cash all over the house — tucked into lapel pockets, secreted within hollowed-out pumpkins, nestled within cake tins above the fridge. That is, until he discovered the horror of a trashed cash stash.

“My girlfriend unknowingly donated one of my old sports jackets to Goodwill,” says the 56-year-old writer from St. Louis. “And, yes, the inside pocket contained hundreds of dollars. I tracked down the store and located the jacket, but the money was gone.”

While keeping a couple of twenties (or even a couple of hundreds) in the cookie jar is probably smart, stashing large amounts of cash around the house can invite heartache and hardship when the funds are lost or tossed or stolen due to good, bad or bungled intentions.

Fleming was out “at least $500” when his sport coat was donated to charity, but a Tel Aviv woman recently lost much more when her “lumpy” mattress — which contained $1 million in cash — was accidentally hauled to the dump, setting off the largest sacking of a site since Rome was visited by Visigoths. (The money still hasn’t been recovered.)

Statistics on the number of people in the U.S. who stash cash at home are hard to come by, but a 2007 survey of 1,500 British adults by Virgin Money found 8 percent of them stash between £300 and £1000 (approximately $500 to $1,650) around the house, usually tucked within a drawer, “biscuit tin,” mattress or safe. Many of those surveyed pointed to emergencies as the primary reason for stashing cash, but others said they’re concerned about bank charges or even bank collapses.

Behind the secret savings
In the U.S., the recession has ratcheted up feelings of insecurity and the sale of home safes. According to SentrySafe, a New York company that makes security storage devices, the sale of safes rose by as much as 50 percent between the fall of 2007 and end of 2008.

But too often cash-stashers don't secure their loot behind a combination lock, instead preferring sugar bowls, quilts and buried coffee cans.

“I’ve found money taped to the back of headboards, in clothes pockets, under loose floorboards, in fake books, and in shoe boxes,” says Scott Roewer, a certified professional organizer from Washington, D.C., who also does estate sales. “It’s amazing what people come up with to hide their money.”

But why take the risk of fire, theft or even faulty memory?

“When we look at this issue, there are probably two possible causes,” says Ken Clark, a psychotherapist and certified financial planner from Little Rock, Ark. “One is biological, there’s something going on in the brain that compels them to hyperfocus on money. They could have fixated on anything — like germs — but they drew the money card. The second cause is environmental, something happened during their developmental years. They had a very heavy stress associated with money.”

“We saw money hiding a lot out of the Depression-era kids,” he says. “People grew up not just with a fear of not having enough money but also with this extreme distrust of the stability of financial institutions. It’s like getting bit by a dog when you’re 5 and then always being afraid of dogs. It creates a phobia in a sense. If you grow up in a house where money was super tight or you remember getting evicted when you were 8 or 10, that might create a hyperfocus on money. You’ll avoid those situations by controlling money throughout your life.”

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Stuffer alert
Matthew Quinn, a Falls Church, Va., estate auctioneer says he encounters money hiders — or “stuffers” as he calls them — in about 1 in 10 estates.

“Once we’ve discovered we have one, we go on ‘stuffer’ alert,” he says. “It’s not always cash. It can be jewelry or other small valuables that are hidden away. They just stuff stuff everywhere. I’ve found savings bonds worth thousands of dollars stuffed into a teapot.”

He’s also seen money hiding get really messy.

“We had a client that had a bunch of cash up underneath the sink,” he says. “There was $20,000 so rotten from moisture that it had to be sent to the U.S. Treasury to analyze what was left.”

Quinn says one of the biggest problems with money hiders is that people often die without telling anyone where they’ve hidden the cash, jewelry, heirlooms or other family valuables. The family then unknowingly sells the house or donates an item containing a cache to a charity and the valuables are lost forever.

“A client asked me if I could sell a dresser for them and it sold at auction to a used furniture dealer for $35,” he says. “He sold it about a week later when they took the drawers out and turned it upside down to load it in the car, they found more than $1,800 in cash. We had sold the money and the dealer had sold the money. Talk about a great find for the purchaser.” Video: Putting money in mattresses doesn't pay off

Stuffers also frequently forget where they’ve hidden their money or valuables either due to old age or Alzheimer’s. One client who was downsizing her estate thought her diamond wedding ring had been stolen — and even made accusations against a family member — until one of Quinn’s staffers found it buried within a tangle of old pantyhose inside a cheap cardboard dresser.

Brenda Avadian, a 49-year-old caregiver advocate from Pearblossom, Calif., says “her heart stopped” when she found a packet of 30-year-old U.S. savings bonds shoved between two books while visiting her father.

“I pulled a book off the shelf and out came this packet of paper,” she says. “I unfolded one piece and saw $1,000 U.S. savings bond. I looked at the next one and it was another $1,000 U.S. bond. There were 28 of them.”

Avadian says she tried to talk to her father about the bonds but his dementia prevented him from understanding how risky it was to hide the bonds — which had increased in value over the years to $100,000 — in the family bookcase. She ended up stowing them in a safe deposit box, then using the money to care for her dad when he was eventually placed in a nursing home.

But she knows at least some of his buried treasure walked out the door.

“We had an estate sale once he came to live with us and the person who bought his encyclopedias called and said they’d found a $1,000 savings bond and what would I like them to do with it,” she says. “I said, I’d really like you to return it, and he said OK.’”

Better safe than sorry
Money loss due to memory loss isn’t the exclusive domain of grandma and grandpa, though.

Jennifer Ormond, a 39-year-old coffee business owner and self-described packrat from Quincy, Mass., says she feels compelled to hide money for that proverbial rainy day — tucking it into books, shoeboxes down in the basement, and secret compartments in her purse. The only problem: she promptly forgets all about it.

“Two years ago, I was getting rid of some books, DVDs, and videos I no longer wanted,” she says. “I made four huge boxes to donate and delivered three of the four boxes that day. Then a few days later I had second thoughts and started poking through the last box. What did I find? Twenty-dollar bills hidden throughout a book. The box was filled with books with money. So were the other three that I had already donated, I’m sure of it.”

Scott Roewer, the professional organizer from Washington, D.C., says money hiders come in all ages, but he advises anyone with cash or other valuables lying around their house to either deposit them in the bank, put them in a fireproof safe, or tell someone where they’re hidden, even if they do it via a note in their will.

“I advise against hoarding cash,” he says. “I’ve seen instances of fire, robbery and accidental death where clients had money hidden but nobody knew and it was gone forever.”

New rash of cash stashing?
As for whether the current economic crisis is going to spawn a new rash of cash stashing, experts say most likely not.

“I think people will have little stashes, $100 in a drawer, but I don’t think we’ll see a widespread reaction like you did in the 1930s,” says Clark. “It will shape behavior, money is the single biggest stressor for most families, but we won’t be seeing coffee cans full of cash in the back yard. With the FDIC standing behind deposits, I think most people realize there’s a greater risk in hiding cash around the house.”

Timothy Fleming, who used to stash away money as a safeguard against going broke, agrees.

“I still hide in a sense, but now it’s dedicated money, like for Christmas,” he says. “I put the money in an envelope and mark the envelope clearly and keep it all in one place. It’s not scattered around in places where I’ll forget. And it’s not thousands of dollars.”

But it took a couple of hard lessons to cure him of his secret habit. In addition to the money lost when his girlfriend cleaned out the hall closet, he once moved out of a house leaving $1,000 buried in a coffee can in the back yard.

“I had to return in the middle of the night and dig up the can,” he said.

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