What would you do if you won the lottery?

20 November 2018

I’ve only ever played it a handful of times, but I’ve always got an answer to that question. At age five, it was buy a Mr Frosty ice machine, then it was have a thousand cats (aged nine), build a wall-to-wall black marble bathroom (aged 15, cringe), or have my loft converted (now, oh how I’d like a loft conversion).

The chances of winning may be minuscule (or lower if, like me, you don’t play), but even so we can’t help but imagine, and dream, build castles (or loft extensions) in the sky.

My neighbour and her best friend, both in their eighties, used to play every week. For over half a century they had a code word ready if either of them won. The winner would phone the other and utter one word ‘Armani’ and the other would know they’d hit the jackpot and that they were to meet in one hour on Bond Street for the shopping spree they’d always dreamed of.

This month, as we’ve put together our free money feature, I’ve realised just how many of us do have the opportunity for a windfall.

They may not make you an overnight millionaire, but there are billions available in unclaimed pensions, savings accounts, benefits, prizes – you name it.

But like the lottery, you have to be in it to win it. Some of these payouts you will receive automatically, others you have to go out and claim.

And for most of us this is not about black marble bathrooms – it’s about real boosts to our quality of life.

For example, pension credit is available to retirees on low incomes. But up to 1.4 million families who were entitled to receive it in 2016 didn’t, losing out on around £2,000 every year. That’s billions of available support that goes unclaimed. Think what a difference an extra two grand could make for the sake of a couple of phone calls.

Many of us do have the chance to get a windfall

We say ‘free’ because in most cases we’re talking about bonus money that we otherwise would not have had. But often it’s ours, if we only would claim it.

However, I still think there’s a note of truth to the saying: “There is ‘no such thing as a free lunch.” If something appears to be free, how else might we be paying if not with money.

Increasingly, for example, our own data is a currency more valuable than our money. Through the internet and search engines, we may get access to the most incredible store of information and the ability to share, consume and create it without paying a penny. But we are still paying – with data. That’s fine, so long as we know what we are giving away and that we are happy to do so.

Similarly in financial services there are many things that appear free that have to be paid for somehow.

Take current accounts. Most of us don’t pay for our bank account – we take out money, cash cheques, pay bills without handing over a penny.

We’re so used to getting all this for free that it is hard for banks to start charging us, so they do so in other ways – for example, through eye-watering overdraft fees. Even if you never stray into the red and so don’t pay anything to your bank, there will be other people who are making the business model viable.

Another example can be seen in our investigation into ‘buy now pay later’ deals. Retailers will often offer incredible deals whereby you don’t have to pay a penny up front and don’t have to pay interest for ages.

This is great if you play your cards right. In fact, as our feature reveals you can even use it to make money. But these great offers often end up to the benefit of the lender rather than you if it leads you to pay interest because you were overly optimistic about how quickly you could pay the debt back.

I would love to hear your ideas for windfalls that other readers may not be aware of. And if one of our 40 ideas gets you a financial boost, please let me know.