How one five-minute phone call made me $11,000 richer

Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

An old friend of mine started teasing me recently about the envelopes I told her that I used to get from the retirement provider and financial services firm TIAA (formerly TIAA-CREF). All I ever did was add them, unopened, onto an increasingly precarious pile. At some point they stopped coming and I stopped thinking about them.

The friend, who now works for TIAA, told me to call the company. Give them your social security number, she advised, and see if they've been holding onto any money for you.

Doubtful, but why not, right? So at 5:40 PM while getting everything together to pick up my daughter from Pre-K, I dialed the help line.

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[Ring, ring]

ME: [to myself] I'm on a phone! How old school.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Please press a button that corresponds to your reason for calling.

ME: There is no button for this.

AV: Thank you, please wait.


REAL VOICE: Hi, this is a person! How may I help you?

ME: This is going to sound really silly, but I may have an account with you and I'm wondering if there's any way to check?

RV: Sure! What's your SSN? … Thanks. And can you verify your full name, birthday, and the last pay period during which you might have contributed to this account? … Great! Yes, you do have an account with us. We've been trying to reach out but the only address we have is out of date. Your holdings total just over $11,300.

ME: I'm sorry, what?

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When I began my last FT job, at a nonprofit that has since gone under, I must have agreed to have part of my earnings put automatically into a 403(b), and the company matched my contributions. I remember none of this, maybe because, like many of us, I signed a lot of papers upon beginning my employment and didn't retain a strong impression of what they all were.

In any event, I was in that job for four years, and each pay period, some of my money and some of my employer's money was diverted to a retirement account to which I had never given another thought. And since July 2013, that pile of cash has been sitting there, unnoticed and unloved, like little orphan Annie, looking wistfully out the window and dreaming of the parents who are bound to come back and rescue her.

I'm here, Annie, I'm here! I may not be a great steward of funds, but I know enough to know that your current situation, in which you've been making zero interest, is sub-optimal. It's out of the orphanage for you, kiddo. Time to get to work.

This millennial went from broke to millionaire within five years
This millennial went from broke to millionaire within five years

In any event, the TIAA lady was quite nice and said that I could call back and someone would help me transfer my retirement funds into an account that will start accruing some real interest.

I feel a little dumb for having lost track of the funds in the first place, and for not taking advantage of them sooner, but hey, I'm on track now, and that's what counts. Besides, how many times can anyone say they've found $11,000? "Hey, look what was in the pocket of this winter coat? Enough to fund six months of retirement!"

Lessons learned:

  • Mail is annoying. Maybe open it anyway, at least if it's from a financial institution.
  • Five-minute-long phone calls can make you richer!
  • Try calling TIAA, or an equivalent company, to see if you too have any orphan retirement accounts thanks to your employment at some old job. It's a small action that could pay — yup, I'm gonna say it — big dividends.

This article originally appeared on The Billfold.