Last week I started using a search engine called SwagBucks, and I’ve already earned enough points (swag bucks) to buy a $5 Amazon gift card. Are you in on the latest way to win free prizes?

How SwagBucks Works
SwagBucks is simple. Perform searches at their engine and occasionally you win points for those searches. However, they also offer other ways to earn points, and that’s where they really rack up. You can then use those points to buy prizes in the SwagBucks store. Most people opt for the $5 Amazon.com gift card, but they offer many other prizes, too.

How to Earn Extra SwagBucks
In addition to the random bucks awarded through searches, you can also earn points for various other tasks, such as:

  • Answering the daily poll question
  • Completing surveys
  • Completing special offers
  • Trading video games and other items
  • Turning in an old cell phone
  • Shopping
  • Participating on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media
  • Downloading the Toolbar
  • Promoting SwagBucks.

They also release Swagcodes on their blog, Twitter, Facebook, or toolbar, usually one a day, that earn additional points if you see the code and enter it before the deadline.

Search Results Accuracy
My first concern was that Swagbucks wouldn’t be as accurate as Google. The truth is, they’re not always, but I can usually find what I want on a search and if I can’t, I switch to Google. You’ll also notice that there are a lot of sponsored results mixed into their results. Some of these are helpful, some aren’t. However, they are always labeled as Sponsored in the URL, so you can weed them out.

Special Offers
Swagbucks has special offers you can complete, such as signing up for a credit card or joining the Netflix free trial. Some are as simple as watching a one-minute video, but the big rewards could cost you real money or require real effort. If you’re tempted by a big offer, you might find that those same offers earn better rewards through your credit card rewards program or one of the shopping rewards sites, so compare the rewards carefully before choosing.

For example, DirecTV is offering 9975 bucks for subscribing to the service. You could also earn $50 back from ShopatHome for the same thing. So, you have to decide which is worth more to you – the points or the cash. It appears that most rewards in the 9000SB range are worth about $50, so it could be a break-even.

Surveys
Surveys are a great way to rack up lots of points, but they can also be frustrating.

The surveys interface offers several surveys in a variety of categories. The system indicates how likely you are to get accepted for a survey. I tried to take one that said 90% acceptance, and I was rejected. I suspect that my income level, education level, or lack of children is excluding me from most of the surveys. I was able to take a financial service survey worth 75 bucks however. It took about 15 minutes.

The frustrating thing about the surveys is that you have to answer several questions before even being told if you qualify. Sometimes it takes as long as 5 minutes to get rejected. Do that six times and you’ve wasted half an hour.

In addition to surveys, you can complete profiles, which help them figure out which surveys are appropriate for you. You earn bucks for these profiles, and you may be able to cut some of those preliminary questions by completing the profiles, but I haven’t done them all yet.

If you want to earn prizes just for searching, or if you’re willing to take surveys, sign up for Swagbucks.  I earned 400 points my first week, and you only need 450 to get the $5 Amazon gift card.

Note: I will earn Swagbucks for referring you through the links above. If you’re not comfortable with that, go directly to Swagbucks.com without clicking the link.

From time to time, I’m offered an opportunity to do a bit of moonlighting. In my case, it’s freelance writing. Sometimes I accept the offer, and sometimes I don’t. Before accepting any offer, I carefully consider a few factors and discuss with my spouse. If you’re looking for side work, or being offered side work, here are some questions to ask.

Am I Qualified to Do the Job?
A potential client may not be completely familiar with your skills. Before accepting a side job or freelance project, get more details about what they expect from you, when they need it, and what the job requires. It might be something that you can do in a weekend, but it could also be something that requires you to learn new skills. If you don’t have the time to learn them, or don’t want to learn them, pass on the job.

Is the Money Worth My Time?
Ask up front how much the client is expecting to pay and how the pay will be structured. Once you know how long you have to complete the job and what sort of pay you’re looking at, figure out how long it will take you to do it. Are there any events or jobs that will require your time in the interim? How much actual time do you have available to do the job? If you don’t have enough time in your day already, then don’t do the job. If you’re stressed about fitting the extra work into your life, you and the job will suffer.

Even if you have enough time, is the money worth it? If you’ll earn just a few bucks an hour, the additional stress and exhaustion may not be worth it. That’s especially true if you work a full-time job, and would have to do the side job on top of that. On the other hand, sometimes the money is just too good to pass up. If it’s a big job that you’re fully qualified for, and have time for, then it’s probably worth giving up an hour each night and a few hours on the weekends.

Can You Afford the Taxes or Related Expenses?
Remember, any self-employment income over $400 is taxable. Is the job still worth it after you pay 5.3% of it in self-employment taxes, plus income tax on the additional income, and cover the costs for any necessary supplies? If the supplies are expensive, ask the client to pay for those separately. Don’t let them eat into your profit. If you can afford the taxes, make sure you pay estimated taxes in the quarter you earn them, or adjust your withholding to cover it. Failing to pay those state and federal can result in a penalty if you wait until tax day to pay them.

Do I Want to Do the Job?
It sounds simple, but for me this is the trickiest question of all. The allure of extra money is very tempting, but sometimes I’m just not interested in the topic. Other times I don’t want to deal with the client. Still other times I don’t want to give up my already short time. All of those are valid reasons to say no, even if the money is good. If you don’t want to do the job, you’ll just make yourself miserable in the long run.

Freelance work can be a great financial windfall, but only if you can handle the extra work. If you’re overwhelmed, just saying now is okay, too.

My husband and I have received several thousand dollars in windfalls during the last few months and expect a few more in the coming months. While it may seem like we’re extraordinarily lucky, the truth is we created situations that made them possible, and then did our best to ensure we received them. Here’s what you can do to attract a windfall your way.

Research Possible Sources of Windfalls
I don’t mean that you should prey on elderly relatives hoping to be added to their wills. Instead, look to potential windfall sources in your career and hobbies. Your employer might offer bonuses for overtime, attracting new clients, or referring new employees. If you have a hobby, see if there are lucrative contests or a potential to turn your hobby into a small business.

Network to Develop Your Windfall Potential
Whether you want your windfall to come from your job or a small business, you then need to put yourself in a position to receive it. Start by expanding your social and business network:

  • Join LinkedIn to expand business contacts
  • Join Yahoogroups associated with your field or hobby
  • Participate in industry forums, networking meetings, and MeetUps
  • Join online hobby groups
  • Join local hobby groups
  • Join church groups and other local social networks
  • Attend local hobby fairs and meetings
  • Develop a hobby website
  • Start a hobby blog
  • Start an industry blog

Be Aware of Opportunities
Ask co-workers to let you know if they hear of hiring opportunities you can refer someone for. If a friend, relative, or co-worker mentions an interest in your business or a potential referral opportunity, offer yourself as a business resource. If you receive an email from someone about a potential opportunity, reply promptly.

Demonstrate Your Value
I’ve received two windfalls in the $8-10,000 range through a website I own and a Yahoogroup I belong to. I responded to both opportunities promptly, provided the required proposals quickly, and developed a good reputation for meeting deadlines early or on-time and being easy to work with.

Once your known as someone with a reliable product, service, or network, people will come to you for additional products, services, or referrals. That makes it possible to receive “regular windfalls” throughout the year, or build your hobby into a small business that provides a steady stream of additional income.

Be Prepared to Work Hard
If you do invite windfalls into your life, be prepared to work for them. If your company offers overtime bonuses, you have to be willing to work overtime. Networking and hobby meetings usually take place outside of work hours, so you have to make room for them in your life. If you offer a service, you have to be willing to give up free time to provide it.

Be Prepared for Additional Taxes
If you receive a large windfall, you may need to report that as income, so plan early for the extra tax hit. It’s worth it. Even if you have to give away 25% to Uncle Sam, you still have 75% of it that you didn’t have before.

Be Grateful and Return the Favor
Be grateful for every windfall you receive. Thank the person who requested your service, bought your product, or hired your referral. If possible, return the favor by referring business to him or her at some other time.

Don’t Blow It
Finally, don’t blow your windfall when you receive it. Rather than taking yourself on a shopping spree, know what you want to spend it on beforehand. For us, that was debt payoff, then taxes, and then our emergency fund. Sure, you can enjoy a small sum of it by going out to a nice dinner, treating yourself to a massage, or buying an affordable item of clothing, but don’t spend it all. Let the universe know you value the windfall, and it will continue to offer them to you. Show the universe that all you’ll do is waste it, and your opportunities may dry up.

So far this year, my husband and I have received over $20,000 in windfalls. Although our debt has paid off, we have new goals and are still actively making room for new windfalls to come into our lives. We’re also doing the work necessary to produce them. Best of all, no one we love has to suffer for our financial benefit. We’re not counting on inheritances or generous relatives to rescue us. Instead we rescued ourselves with a little elbow grease.

Leap day comes but once every four years. In honor of this rare occasion, I propose 29 financial leaps to take. Here they are, in no particular order:

Prepare your taxes now. Spend an hour preparing your taxes online. If you don’t owe, file them now and receive your rebate now. If you owe, now you’ll have several weeks to save the money to pay the bill instead of panicking on April 15.

Deposit $29 into an emergency fund. If you don’t have one, start one today with this small sum. If you have one, add a little extra.

Stop paper statements. If you still receive paper statements, call the issuer or go online to turn them off. (Washington Mutual won’t do this). It’s a quick, easy way to protect your identity.

Order one of your credit reports. I request one report every four months, usually on the 1st of the month.

Make an extra debt payment ending in 29. If you have any debt, make an extra debt payment of $29, or any other figure ending in 29 ($129, for example). If you can’t swing even an extra $29, go for $2.90. Anything to give your repayment a little boost.

Organize your financial papers. Buy a simple metal box and organize your financial papers, finally. Use simple categories like “bank statements,” “tax returns,” and “receipts.”

Open a safe deposit box. Visit a local bank to open a safe deposit box. Put a copy of your marriage license, house deed or mortgage agreement, birth certificate, insurance documents, home inventory photos or video, and a computer backup inside.

Consolidate your savings. If you have savings in several different banks, and they don’t total more than $100,000, consolidate them down to one account in one bank.

Confirm old accounts. If you have any old accounts, contact the bank to let them know you’re still aware of the account. Hopefully this will avoid any unclaimed property seizures.

Search for unclaimed property. See if any states are holding your money and claim it today!

Test online financial software. If you don’t use Quicken or MS Money, check out Mint or Yodlee to see if you like them.

Start tracking your finances. If you don’t have a financial tracking system in place, start one now. It can as simple as a lined notebook with a page for every month where you list your bills and deposits or as complex as software.

Discuss your finances with your spouse. If you’re not in the habit of talking about money with your spouse, do it today. Review all of your important financial documents, including your checking and savings accounts, retirement balances, portfolios, insurance policies, mortgage, and college savings programs. Discuss your personal spending habits and beliefs.

Set joint financial goals. Setting joint financial goals with your spouse can help you both curb your spending. Choose one goal, whether it’s saving for your dream vacation or remodeling the kitchen, and make a plan to work toward it.

Make a debt or savings poster. If you need visual goal reinforcement, draw a thermometer on a big piece of paper. Put your pay-off or savings goal at the top. Now color it in each time you make a payment or deposit. Use green ink to show your progress!

Track your spending for one day. If you’ve never tracked your spending before, tracking it for one month is best, but try it for one day just to see how easy it is.

Read a financial magazine. Even if you already read a financial magazine regularly, try a different one to see how you like it. Visit the library to read one for free.

Balance your portfolio. If you haven’t balanced your portfolio in the last twelve months, review it today and make necessary adjustments. Don’t make panic adjustments, if the fundamentals are still good, stay the course.

Read a personal finance book. Ask the librarian for a good one. Even if you disagree with the advice, it’s always good to get a different perspective.

Turn off the TV for one week. Stop watching TV for one week and see if it affects your spending. Do you want less stuff because you’re not seeing commercials? Do you enjoy life more because you have more time to do other things?

Research one stock that interests you. Even if you don’t invest in the stock market, research one stock in-depth just to get in the practice. See if it’s really as good as you think it is. If it’s really good and you can afford it, invest.

Invest in an index fund. This one will cost much more than $29, but if you have enough money, invest in an index fund today. Vanguard is one of the best fund families with the lowest expenses.

Don’t spend any money for one day. Brown bag your lunch, skip the coffee, don’t buy that snack. Go one day without spending any money. Now see if you can make it two.

Pay cash for everything for one day. Withdraw $20 from the bank in the morning, or limit yourself to whatever is in your wallet. Buy everything with cash for that one day. (Bonus points if you do this on a grocery shopping day.)

Set up automatic transfers to savings. If you’ve paid off your debt and are in saving mode, set up automatic transfers for the day after payday (just to be safe). If the money is whisked into your savings account automatically, you’ll never find excuses not to save.

Consider switching banks. If your bank charges checking account fees and you don’t have direct deposit, or if they charge for online bill pay, consider switching to a bank that offers both for free.

Purge your stuff. Go through your home from top to bottom and purge all the stuff you don’t want anymore. Sell it, donate it, or throw it out. Whatever you do, get it out of your home and your mind.

Set a one-in, one-out policy. Vow that every time you buy something, you will get rid of something else. Bonus points if you can make it one-in, two-out.

Get rid of your storage unit. If you have so much stuff that it has to be in storage, then you probably don’t need it. Visit your storage unit and do a full inventory. Then steadily get rid of the stuff. Once it’s empty, cancel the unit.

And now a special bonus leap because I’m a fan of Monk:

Subscribe to this blog. Get in your feed reader every day for more great financial tips.

Do you have any financial leaps you’re making in honor of leap year? Let me know in the comments.

Every few months there’s a new story about unclaimed property. News crews travel to public places armed with computers and help people find thousands of dollars of unclaimed property. Fortunately, you can find your property yourself without paying fees to anyone else or waiting for a news crew to happen by.

What Is Unclaimed Property?

For the most part, unclaimed property is money you are owed, but payer had an invalid address. Often you’ll see old stock dividends, insurance settlements, and lost paychecks. The property may be listed under your maiden name if you’re married. It could also be the remnants of a childhood bank account that wasn’t closed before you moved. Banks are supposed to try to find you, but most don’t put much effort into it.

After an allotted amount of time, three years in California, the bank or other institution turns the funds over to the state, which then has use of the funds until you claim it. They are required to pay interest though, so it’s worth claiming even if the original property was $20 20 years ago.

Many people are startled to find that their safe deposit boxes listed in unclaimed property databases. If you don’t visit your bank or have communication with them in regards to the box for three years, they will break it open, sell the contents, and give the proceeds to the state. Due to a lawsuit, the practice is currently halted in California, but may continue in other states. If you have heirlooms or other irreplaceable property in the box, make sure you stay in touch with the bank.

How to Find Unclaimed Property
You can find unclaimed property easily online. First start with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. They can search the unclaimed databases for nearly 40 states. They have links and contact information for unclaimed property departments in the non-participating states and territories, which are:

Arkansas
California
Connecticut
Delaware
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Indiana
New Mexico
New York
Oregon
Wyoming

Rhode Island is pending. Use the addresses on the site to write to the unclaimed property offices in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Whether you use the NAUPA site or the state links above, start by searching for your full name and then expand out from there. Some debts are listed only by last name and first initial.

If you think a tax refund is missing, you can search for it through the Where’s My Refund tool on the IRS website.

Avoid Unclaimed Property Services
Years ago when the California site first went online, my boss’s old friend alerted him to the existence of some funds and I did the paperwork to reclaim it. My boss then received a notice from an unclaimed property service about an even larger sum in another state. I argued that we could have found the same information ourselves and therefore owed them nothing, but he felt an obligation to use them. The cost was 30% of the found amount, a rather significant sum in this case.

If you receive a notice, don’t contact the service. Instead go online and find the money yourself. Anyone can do a search for anyone, so you may want to perform searches for older relatives who are more likely to agree to a service’s hefty fees. In my boss’s case, he had to track down proof of his former address and submit it to the service, which then filled out a piece of paper and submitted it. We did all the legwork and they got money for nothing.

I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, but I’ve never located unclaimed property for myself. I check once a year just to be safe though. You never know when money might go missing!

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