You found a $20 bill — now what?


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What can you really do with it?

Find a $20 bill in a pants pocket or last year’s purse, and it feels like a gift.

But what can you really do with it? You can blow most of it at the coffee shop. You can take in that summer blockbuster you’ve been dying to see. Or you can do something that will make a lasting change — and actually make your life better in some way.

From food to home to finances, here are eight smart things you can do with a $20 windfall.

Increase clarity at home

Best buy for $20? Clean windows, says Christopher Lowell, designer, author of “Christopher Lowell’s Seven Layers of Organization” and host of the weekly Web series “Ask Christopher.”

His pick for the job is a garden hose attachment that holds window cleaner and turns your hose into a window-washing machine. It’s a great move, especially for summer, he says. “You don’t realize what an emotional uplift it is when you walk into your house and see all your windows clean.”

Boost your finances

Use your $20 to make more money, says Jill Gianola, CFP, Gianola Financial Planning LLC, and author of “The Young Couple’s Guide to Growing Rich Together.”

Her choice for the windfall is “a good, unbiased personal finance book.” Her top picks are ” Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People,” by Jane Bryant Quinn or “Personal Finance for Dummies” by Eric Tyson.

Then take the remaining money and buy a Dome Home Budget Book (about $7 on Amazon) to track household income and spending “for at least three months,” Gianola says. After that, choose one or two spending categories and reduce your expenses by 20 percent to 30 percent per month.

“Put the money you saved in a bank account or IRA,” Gianola says. “You can get good ideas from your personal finance book.” Reward yourself after you’ve saved $100 by taking $20 for “a special splurge — lunch out, a night at the movies, etc.”

Beef up your tool kit

“There are a few little miscellaneous things I find I’m always glad I have,” says Richard Trethewey, the plumbing and heating expert for “This Old House” and “Ask This Old House.”

One handy pick is Teflon tape. If you have a leaking faucet outdoors, or shut-off valves in your basement, attic or closets, you can loosen the top nut and wrap this around the threads to tighten the seal, “and you feel like a master plumber,” he says. The cost is about $2.

Another all-purpose tool is electrical tape. There’s almost “no limit” to what you can use it for, says Trethewey. And “in a pinch, you could use it to patch a leak in a drain line under your sink. It’s elastic and it really holds. You can use it in a variety of ways.” A roll runs about $2.

“Another thing I’m always glad I have is a five-in-one or 10-in-one screwdriver,” he says. “With a good grip, you don’t have to carry six screwdrivers in your drawer.” They start around $9.

Get a nicer ride

Auto detailing can make it feel like you have a brand-new car. But a complete detailing job can be pricy, Lowell says. The best bargain on four wheels is to get just the interior done. You’re now driving around with “the new, fresh smell and the vacuumed interior.”

He estimates that it costs about $17 to detail the interior and vacuum out the trunk.

And for a few extra bucks, you can hit the automatic car wash the next time you fill up.

Learn about investment options

When prices and interest rates are low, it can be a great time for real estate investors, says Dick Gaylord, past president of the National Association of Realtors.

His pick for a $20 windfall is a copy of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” by Eric Tyson. Depending on the venue, the book is available new or used for $16 or less.

For people who want to invest in real estate but know little about it, this will help them understand what’s involved and get them moving in the right direction, Gaylord says.

Spice up your life

Fresh herbs are a great way to perk up your meals, but they can also be one of the most expensive items at the grocery store.

Growing your own is a way to save money and have fun.

Start with a small terra-cotta pot and plant your three kitchen favorites, says Lowell. For about $17 in supplies, you can harvest it all summer.

One practical — and fragrant — combo he likes is basil, rosemary and thyme.

Not only will you save some money, but you will also get the enjoyment of growing and harvesting something you’re using in your own meals, Lowell says. “It heightens the experience on a lot of levels.”

Do something nice for someone else

Want to share some of that windfall? There are a lot of charities that could use a boost right now. Here are two:

America’s Second Harvest: During the summer, food banks scramble to meet increased demand. There are no school lunches, which is sometimes the best or only meal children have all day. As families struggle to stretch more meals out of already tight budgets, this group, which is a network of community food banks, can turn your $20 into roughly 140 meals.

American Red Cross: Even if you can’t leave your desk, you can pitch in with disaster relief. This group is often among the first on the scene when catastrophe strikes. The money provides food, shelter, toiletries and even clean drinking water. You can also specify if there’s a particular disaster area you want to help with your donation.

Buy a little peace of mind

Can $20 help you sleep better at night? Quite possibly, says Todd Mark, vice president of education for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas.

When you’re trying to decide what to do with $20, listen to your “SWAN factor.” The acronym stands for whatever helps you “sleep well at night,” says Mark, who picked up the concept from late Atlanta radio money reporter Mike Kavanagh, CFP.

So figure out what fuels your SWAN factor. If it’s paying down your debt, then throw that money at one of the bills. If it’s building an emergency fund, stash it there.

Look at what you can start with it, too, Mark says. While $20 alone “is not going to solve any major financial problems,” $20 each week is $1,000 per year — “and it’s suddenly very significant.”

Mark says, “Things that are bite-sized may seem insignificant, but they can have a huge impact long term.”

Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.