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When The Intrinsic Reward of Doing The Right Thing Is Tarnished By Money

Are rewards mandatory for returning a lost wallet or purse to its owner?

About 2 days ago I went grocery shopping. For some reason, this trip required a lot more food than usual, and as a result, I didn’t notice I dropped my wallet when loading up my car. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized it was missing.

I quickly drove back to the store (5 minutes, max), searched the parking lot, went inside the store to see if anyone turned it in, but my wallet was long gone. Disappointed, I went home and promptly froze all of my bank account cards.

This morning, just as I was about to head out to get a replacement driver’s license, a man and his young daughter appeared on my doorstep. He politely explained that they had found my wallet and wanted to return it to me. I was beyond ecstatic when he handed it to me; I honestly thought I’d burst into tears of relief. I shook his hand while thanking him over and over again. I really was grateful.

When I finally let go of his hand, he frowned at me and asked, “Is that it?” Confused, I said, “What do you mean?” He scoffed and continued to frown. “Don’t I get a reward for giving you back your wallet?”

I haven’t carried cash on me for several years now and we don’t have any in the house. So even if I wanted to give him a reward, I couldn’t. So I apologized and told him I didn’t have any money on me.

He scoffed again. “Ungrateful,” he muttered, grabbing his daughter’s hand and pulling her back towards their car.

Was I wrong? Should I have offered something else besides money? I was raised to believe that you do acts of kindness without expecting anything in return. Has that changed?   0825-16

There are several problems with the man and daughter who returned the writer’s wallet.  First, if found in a public store or its parking lot, he should have turned it into the store management who would have held it in their safe until claimed by its rightful owner.  Second, his expectation of financial reward reveals the condition of his heart and that his act of “kindness” was done not for the benefit of the wallet’s owner but for himself.   That’s not kindness, it’s just another way to earn a few bucks.   Third, his response upon hearing there was no financial payback for his choice to return the wallet shows how little he values bringing joy to someone else.   Fourth, he has no clue what gratitude is if he thinks a handshake and repeated expressions of thanks must be paired a twenty dollar bill.

So, no, story writer, you were fine in your expressions of gratitude and appreciation. No money needed to exchange hands as proof of that gratitude.


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  • BagLady August 29, 2016, 7:43 pm

    There is a pop culture trope I remember from my youth about receiving a reward for turning in lost cash or valuables. A kid (picture Beaver Cleaver or Opie Taylor or a female equivalent) has been desperately wanting some Kid Treasure (Red Ryder BB gun, pretty new party dress) … when shazam! S/he finds a bunch of money. After the initial euphoria of “Wow! Now I can buy that Kid Treasure!” the child’s conscience kicks in and s/he turns in the money … and of course, is rewarded, usually with the very Kid Treasure s/he had been coveting.

    The purpose of stories like these is to teach children that they will win in the end for doing the right thing. But most of us outgrow the notion that the “win” will come in the form of a tangible reward, rather than the good deed being its own reward. Unfortunately Wallet Man apparently didn’t.

    My own reward recipient experience: There’s a smallish group of us that goes to a certain bar/restaurant on Wednesday nights for drinks and munchies. One Wednesday, a member of our group found a cellphone that had been dropped in the parking lot. Now this restaurant is in a strip mall. There was no way of knowing whether the phone’s owner had been a customer of the restaurant or one of the other establishments in the strip mall.

    Since it would have done no good to actually call the owner (we had her phone!), we tried calling the numbers on her contact list. Eventually we reached a live person and told them that we had found this phone that belonged to someone she knew (gave her the number and other details so she’d know who it was). Then we turned in the phone to the restaurant management. The person we reached was able to contact the phone’s owner and tell her the phone was waiting at D’s Restaurant.

    The following week, we arrived at the restaurant and learned that the phone’s owner had bought our group a $40 gift certificate toward our next visit! Which was a lovely and much appreciated gesture, but certainly not one we had expected or felt entitled to.

    • Mojo August 30, 2016, 2:54 am

      Reminds me of that satirical quote from Jane Eyre, where the old curmudgeon chides Jane for impiety, holding another child up as example:

      “…when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: ‘Oh! the verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms;’ says he, ‘I wish to be a little angel here below;’ he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety.”

  • DannysGirl August 29, 2016, 8:12 pm

    This is strangely timely. Just this evening at the supermarket, someone had left a grocery cart sitting in the lot next to where my family and I had parked. My husband grabbed the cart so we could use it, and found a sandwich baggie full of change inside! Before we began shopping, we stopped at the customer service desk to turn in the money. My seven year-old son asked me why we were turning in the money first, as he wanted to look at the DIY key machine at the store’s entrance first thing. I explained that the money wasn’t ours, and turning it in quickly was the right thing to do. Between finding the bag and turning it in, all I thought about was this story.

  • LizaJane August 29, 2016, 9:04 pm

    Not a lost/reward story, but an expecting payment one.
    I grew up on a narrow, curvy, hilly stretch of highway hell. It’s notorious. About 8 miles between 2 small towns and we were close to the middle. We farmed, as did almost everyone on that stretch.

    So every snow, ice or rainstorm, someone was going off in a ditch. Lots of late night knocks at the door. Dad got up got dressed, got a tractor and a chain and pulled them out. I’m sure our nighbors did the same. Dad never took money from anyone. It cost him a little fuel and some sleep.

    One morning it was my brother in the ditch. Closest house was old Mr R. Up the long lane trudges brother. Mr R pulled him out and, as we were raised, brother asks, “What do I owe you?”
    No one actually charged a neighbor. No one except Mr R, anyway. He named an amount that was 50 cents less than brother would get paid that afternoon. Not much of a Saturday night for him and his girl.


    • dandj August 30, 2016, 6:12 am

      This reminds me of the area where I live a bit. Once when in high school I got stuck on a snow drift, I had a very light car, and while wating for my dad and AAA to get there I had about 3 people stop and check on me or offer help. Then after dad got there and sent me home while still waiting for AAA he had several people stop, and someone who had a truck and chain got the car unstuck.

      It’s just the culture in my area for people to stop and offer help, especially in winter, when they’re able to. It’s just what people do here.

      • LizaJane August 30, 2016, 8:13 am

        I’ve wound up very close to where I started. It’s still pretty much the same here.

    • Jazzgirl205 August 30, 2016, 9:03 am

      Years ago, I was at a party at a house that was worth way over a million dollars. The party took place on the house’s large pier over the bay. I accidently dropped my keys in the water. The host motioned for his 11 yo son to don his trunks and jump in the 4 ft of water and retrieve them. When the boy was under water, the father told me, “Don’t forget to give him some money for doing this.” I did but I thought it odd. My parents, who entertained frequently, would’ve never even considered asking their guests for payment for services like that. It also teaches the child that everything he does deserves a reward. I’m sorry that the post above had a child watching.

      • kingsrings August 30, 2016, 6:16 pm

        I must admit that I cracked up while reading this story. The absurdity of this parent requiring you to do that. And just the whole story, this kid being the quintessential “fish on demand”.

  • Rubies August 29, 2016, 9:43 pm

    Just tonight, my daughter, husband and I were taking a walk and found an iphone on a table outside a restaurant. I went straight insid to turn it in. The phone’s owner was there and thanked us. We smiled and left quickly because we weren’t in it for the thanks. We just wanted the rightful owner to have his phone back.

  • Library Dragon August 30, 2016, 2:27 am

    Rest assured there are people happy to do the right thing. My oldest son dropped his wallet in a parking lot in a neighboring city. An employee of a cafe found it. No phone number, but there was his library card. They called and asked if we could get a message to him. I was put on the phone and they were thrilled to talk to the owner’s mom. When he went to pick it up every cent of his just cashed paycheck was there. The cafe staff even treated him to a coffee in celebration. It restores faith in people.

  • Louisa August 30, 2016, 4:14 am

    My dad works for the local council and we spent many years growing up helping him pick up rubbish in parks and public malls on a weekend morning. He’s frequently found bags, purses, wallets, and money.

    I remember two times in particular where he found a bag from someone who lived a considerable distance away. My mum took enough money from the bag to cover postage, left a note explaining where they had left it and mailed it back, with no return address of course.

    Another time he found a small shoulder bag which was full of someone’s diabetes medication. My dad personally delivered it to his house and the man was so incredibly grateful. No reward offered but the man certainly called the council office on monday and gave my dad some glowing praise.

    That being said, my Dad’s colleague has had some awful experiences. Took a bag, which was STUFFED with cash, $5000+ to the police station and went to work. They called the woman who picked it up and then proceeded to come back to his work with the police and claimed that he had taken a large portion of money which was in there. After that he said if he ever saw another bag he’d just call the police and not touch it.

    • Louisa August 30, 2016, 4:16 am

      I also just wanted to point out my dad never expected a reward on any of these occasions.

    • Ant August 30, 2016, 8:13 am

      I would question why the police didn’t have enough common sense to know that if any money was taken it was not your dad’s colleague. I mean if you are of a mind to steal from a found item you are not going leave 5000+. Also even if you did, would you leave your contact details with the police… you would have to pretty crazy to do that.

      • NostalgicGal August 30, 2016, 1:00 pm

        Exactly. This.

      • Louisa August 30, 2016, 5:58 pm

        The police station was less than 2 minutes away from where he worked and the uniform is quite identifiable, he said where the bag was found and went back to work. The woman arrived that day to pick up her bag and apparently instantly asked a police officer to come to show her who had turned in her bag without her intentions.

        It’s quite awful but it’s a more and more common occurrence for people to claim more that the person turning in the wallet stole money out of it.

        • Ant August 31, 2016, 5:01 am

          I must be missing something- I would have at laughed her for accusing the person turning it in this case. Turning in an empty wallet may be done by a criminal, but a full one?

  • Ant August 30, 2016, 4:37 am

    I think there’s plenty of people out there not in it for the reward. And I would always ask these people how they would feel if it were them/their relative who lost something? I doubt the people who wish for rewards are also the type to instantly repay a good deed.

    Unfortunately I’ve never been in the position to test my resolve beyond small dropped items. My brother on the other hand once found a wallet stuffed with notes at a bus stop. Without looking in it he turned it into the police (although I did ask him later and he admitted part of the reason he never examined the wallet for ID etc is he thought it might be drug related given the amount that looked to be in there). ~6-8 weeks later it was Christmas day and we received a surprise visit from a police man, who came to the door with a games console (yes he did get a reward but it was not expected or asked for) and the whole story. Apparently the wallet belonged to an old man with dementia. He managed to sneak past his wife and carer, get to the bank and withdraw the maximum amount that day (which transpired to be 5k!). The man planned to go back to his old home (~200 miles away) but arrived confused at the train station and had to be taken home by the police (and unfortunately as I understand it the man was going to “locked out” of his accounts and moved to a home in the new year). Now imagine that was your grandma /granddad? Would you want a stranger turning up at their door asking for a reward for finding a chunk of their life savings?

  • Stephbwfern August 30, 2016, 6:52 am

    I once found a young person’s resume, including original copies of certificates and references, on the floor of a bus. I was at the back of the bus and it was too crowded to easily take to the driver so I took it home and called the phone number listed and reached the person’s mother. I explained I had found it and would post it to the address listed (confirming it with her) and got a brief thank you from the mother . I’ll never know if it reached the address – I never heard from the family again (despite including my detail with the package). I feel like a thank you should have been in order (rewards are nice but weren’t really expected).

  • magicdomino August 30, 2016, 4:31 pm

    I used to visit a nearby food court during my lunch. Usually, I brought my lunch, but I would buy a drink, just to support the food court people. As a result, I got to know the cashiers quite well.

    One day, I left my purse behind, and it was several hours before I noticed. When I asked one of the cashiers, she remembered the purse. They had kept it for a while, but a woman from one of the food stations had just taken the purse to the security station. Went to the security station to find the purse and the woman who carried it there. She hovered for a while, clearly expecting to get a reward, although I knew she only carried it there.

    The next day, I brought a big box of handmade chocolates for the food court personnel to share.

  • Becca August 30, 2016, 4:48 pm

    When I was in elementary school, we found a purde on the way to school in the morning. We took it to the nearest responsible adults, the school front office.

    Turna out a teacher had her car stolen the night before. She has left her purse in there, they took it for a joyride and ditched her purse along the road. It was pure luck two elementary school kids went to the school she taught at.

    We were called into her room and she thanked us for being responsible and thoughtful. We got a piece of candy out of the deal. I do remember thinking it’d be nice to get more but never would say it to anyone.

    When I was stranded with a flat tire last summer, I had a guy stop and change it for me. He was on his way to get dinner with his wife but still took the time beforehand to help me out. I insisted he take some cash to cover their meal that night. They weren’t expecting anything but were naturally happy to get something out of their kindness.

  • Becca August 30, 2016, 5:07 pm

    This does remind me of last year, I forgot my wallet on top of a counter at the hot dog counter in a mlb stadium.

    I was able to get in touch with the stadium the next day and they did have it, someone turned it in. Everything, including my cash was there. It was such a relief because I was from out of state and almost didn’t even get my hotel room without the card I had the reservation on, thankfully my friend had enough on her card to fix that as well.

    The stadium would have mailed it if I wasn’t still in town.

  • Louisa August 30, 2016, 6:07 pm

    Another experience I forgot to mention was when I found a mobile phone on a train after a night out whilst heading home the next morning.

    I called the number that linked up to “mum” and explained the situation, she gets my number, thanks me and tells me that she will organise for her son (whose phone it is, to call me.)

    About 5 hours later I get a call from her son who is grateful but then INSISTS I travel for 20 minutes on a train and walk for another 30 minutes to deliver the phone to his house. I offered to post it at my expense or meet him at the train station as I didn’t drive and it would be a huge inconvenience for me to travel all that way. Nope, wasn’t good enough. I had to deliver it in person.

    I ended up dropping the phone into the local police station with the address, they happily agreed to drop it back in with it’s owner.

    • NostalgicGal September 1, 2016, 9:00 am

      That wasn’t good when hey, someone found his phone, and he wanted it hand delivered??? He was the one that left it behind, he should finish the retrieval himself.

  • Mags August 31, 2016, 11:22 am

    I have many many stories of things I’ve lost and things I’ve returned. However, one that stands out is one of my kids left an ipad at a Future Shop (electronics store). No one noticed, but the next day, someone from the store got in touch with me to tell me they had found it — still not sure exactly how they found me, but I guess it had something to do with my apple account. Anyway, the store is about 100 miles from where I live and we only go to that city every couple of months, so I told him it would be a while before we came to get it. A couple of days later, I find that the store had shipped it to me at their expense.

  • Maria August 31, 2016, 12:06 pm

    I had something similar happen. Once it was a taxi driver who returned it promptly to my home. I don’t carry cash either but offered a $50 check and apologized for not having cash on hand. He seemed greatful and probably more so when it cleared.
    The second time I simply dropped my Amex in the streets of NY. I received a call from Amex telling me she called the number on the back of the card and was waiting on that corner if I was nearby. I sprinted over and again had no cash. I took her address to send her something. She seemed a bit annoyed but perhaps it was bc her say was delayed dealing with this. I disregarded the attitude and sent the check anyway, as promised.
    in the OP’s scenario, the man, perhaps inadvertently or was in a hurry or whatever, made it more difficult for her to find bc he took it from the location. I would have started the conversation with thanks but immediate apologized for not having cash on hand for a token of thanks but would give him a check. If he expressed disappointment, so be it. I had my wallet back and he will be happy when he gets the money. I would give him something not bc I was obligated but bc I would feel it’s the right thing to do. If he was nasty after that, then I may not. I think the OP should have done this and ignored his disappointment.

    • Rebooting September 1, 2016, 9:31 am

      That’s a nice thought, but impossible to do where I am; cheques have become all but obsolete.

  • wren August 31, 2016, 6:32 pm

    A few years ago a woman had parked in front of our property and was walking back and forth on the road. I went out to see if I could help in some way and she said she had driven away from her house with her pistol on top of her car. That’s right, a loaded revolver. And she was in a hurry to get to work. Long story short, she gave me her telephone number and left for work, I walked up the road toward her property and found the handgun, she came back that night to get the gun and I graciously accepted the $20 she offered. I considered it a tax for her carelessness.

    • Becca September 1, 2016, 1:36 pm

      I just left my phone on top of my car and drove off with it there a few days ago. So I can feel for a person who does that with anything.

      However if someone lost a gun and I found it laying around, I would have called the cops. That’s the strangest scenario. She can pick up her gun from the police department to assure that it’s not been used in a crime 🙁

      • wren September 2, 2016, 1:39 pm

        I will fill in some details. I called the sheriff’s office and described everything that happened, once I found the gun and brought it home. I was pretty freaked out. The deputy asked me what kind of gun it was but that was about it, except to say that if she didn’t come to claim her gun I should call the sheriff’s department again. I probably sounded half-hysterical to him and he acted calm and not worried at all. I expected him to say that they wanted to be here when she claimed the gun so they could talk to her. You said it exactly — it was the strangest scenario!

  • Sel August 31, 2016, 10:42 pm

    Left my credit card at the post office after sending a parcel the other day. Got it in the mail yesterday. (I guess they took my address from the return address of the parcel I was sending…)

  • Calli Arcale September 1, 2016, 12:39 pm

    How sad. That man’s child has learned a poor lesson.

    Had I returned this wallet and been offered a reward, I would turn the reward down. Personally, I would consider the act its own reward, and hope instead that the recipient would pay it forward. (Mind you, I don’t have any financial difficulties, so would have no need of a reward anyway.) I think it would be gracious to offer a reward, but it is by no means obligatory and is obviously dependent on means and availability — OP was not expecting this person to stop by and return the wallet, so could not have had anything prepared.

    On a related note, we were vacationing in San Diego a few weeks ago. My daughter dropped her cell phone in the San Diego Safari Park, which covers a rather vast area. We filed a lost item report, and the zoo assured us that if anyone turned it in, they’d ship it back to us, at no cost to us. Lo and behold, two days later someone found the phone and turned it in to the zoo’s lost & found! (We’d already anticipated its total loss and had changed all passwords associated with it immediately, but had not yet stopped service in hopes of it getting recharged which would cause it to squawk its location to us.) They called us right away to let us know, and put it in the mail. First class, so it actually beat us home. 😉

  • penguin tummy September 5, 2016, 8:31 pm

    What an incredible situation! I cannot imagine anyone actually asking for a reward, and such a bad example for the child that was with him. Interestingly, I found out the other day that in the state I live in it is illegal to offer a reward for return of an item/pet/person “no questions asked” as you are technically rewarding crime.

  • Esel September 28, 2016, 3:04 pm

    My daughter’s car slid on our street and kind of got stuck on the ice pile on the side of the road. Peopled stopped or came out of their house to check on her…and one fellow really helped dig out the ice so she could get free. The next day she brought him cookies.

  • Esel September 28, 2016, 3:06 pm

    One time I found $20 in the work bathroom. I left a little note saying the item that was left was at security. I turned it in…nobody claimed it in 6 months so I got the $20!