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1 in 10 Americans have unclaimed money—here's how to find your lost or forgotten cash

Feeling strapped for cash? CNBC Select outlines ways you can find or redeem unclaimed money that's yours, whether it was lost or forgotten.

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Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

As millions of Americans are financially drained from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, now is a good time to scour for any extra cash. 

We're not talking about searching the couch cushions for loose coins or hoping you'll get lucky and find $20 in your coat pocket. There are ways you can find money you forgot about by looking online. Chances are there's a chunk of change with your name on it.

In fact, 1 in 10 Americans have unclaimed property or money floating around somewhere, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). This money comes from funds found in banks, financial institutions or companies that haven't had contact with the owner for over a year and have been turned over to the state. Most often it's a forgotten checking or savings account, uncashed paycheck, stocks, security deposits, customer overpayments, unredeemed gift cards or tax refunds from the IRS.

Below, CNBC Select takes a deeper look at how to find this lost money owed to you and how to cash in on money you've earned but may have forgotten about.

How to find lost money

A forgotten savings account or a lost paycheck can be a lifeline for many people during this time. Luckily, there are credible websites that can help you search for these windfalls of cash.

To start, visit NAUPA's website Unclaimed.org, a national network collecting records from all 50 states. From there, you can find links to each state's official unclaimed property program. These are all vetted government resources, so it's important you go through NAUPA-provided websites versus a general search engine.

When you click on a state, you will be directed to its official website. To search for your unclaimed money, use both your current and maiden name if you legally changed your last name. You may want to try different search inquires as well, such as using the first initial of your first name plus your full last name.

Because unclaimed property is reported to the state where the company or organization is located, it's common to have lost money in more than one place, especially if you have moved between states. To search multiple states at once, NAUPA recommends using MissingMoney.com, a free website they endorse. Make sure to check every state where you have lived and done business.

How to claim unclaimed money: Each state has its own process when you're ready to claim your lost money, but it should be pretty straightforward. You need to be prepared to show proof of ownership of whatever you are claiming such as a pay stub, utility bill or your Social Security number. You will also need to have proof of identity, like a copy of your driver's license or passport. Processing times vary by state but some can take less than 30 days, the NAUPA website says.

Some other government sources with searchable databases include:

How to cash in forgotten money

While you might not have lost money sitting in a forgotten bank account, chances are you are sitting on some funds that you could cash in right now.

First up is your credit card rewards. If you have a cash-back credit card sitting in your wallet and you use it regularly, don't forget that's money you earned that could come in handy.

For example, with the Citi® Double Cash Card, which offers 2% cash back: 1% on all eligible purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill, cardholders can redeem cash back for checks or statement credits once they've earned $25. Assuming cardholders maximize their rewards potential, CNBC Select found that the average consumer can earn an estimated $437 in cash back after just one year and $2,185 after five years. 

But it's not just cash-back cards that come in handy right now. With travel arguably on hold for quite some time, you can redeem your travel credit card rewards for non-travel options like cash back or merchandise. (Note the redemption rate may be likely lower than using the rewards for travel.) For example, if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can use your Ultimate Rewards® points for purchases on Amazon.com or as cash back in the form of a statement credit or a direct deposit into your checking or savings account.

And as Americans have changed their spending habits during the pandemic, keep in mind that credit card issuers have kept up by adapting their rewards programs, including travel credit changes, through the end of the year. Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can use their annual $300 travel credit on gas station and grocery store purchases, and users of the Citi Prestige® Card can spend their annual $250 travel credit on eligible purchases at supermarkets and restaurants.

Learn more: A complete list of credit cards with limited-time bonus rewards on groceries, streaming and takeout

Another place to tap for forgotten funds are money transfer apps like Venmo and PayPal. These apps are great for sharing payments and splitting the bill for takeout, but it's good to transfer that money into your bank account. While quarantined at home, it's perfect timing to do some financial "spring cleaning" and make sure any of your banking apps don't have money sitting in them.

And, finally, don't forget about all those unused gift cards filling your wallet. Using estimates from Mercator Advisory Group, CBS News reported earlier this year that as much as $3 billion in gift cards will go unredeemed this year alone. If you're sitting on an old gift card because you don't like the store or you just forgot about it, consider trading it in for cash. Card exchange websites like Cardpool.com allow you to exchange or sell both physical and electronic gift cards for up to 88% of their original value.

Bottom line

As the economy struggles to rebound, every dollar matters to the average consumer.

Whether you feel low on cash right now or you are worried about more financial strain in the coming months, spend some time searching for any unclaimed money on websites like Unclaimed.org and MissingMoney.com. And don't forget about what's already in your wallet, like your credit cards. You earned the rewards and now is a good time to cash them in.

Information about the Citi Prestige® Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.