What I Learned From Giving Away $60,000 (and Other Insights From the Hidden Cash Creator)

hidden cashYou might be familiar with the “Hidden Cash” events that popped up around the US last year. They were organized by successful real estate investor and businessman, Jason Buzi, who was looking for creative ways to do good and give back. We were honored to interview him last summer as these secret giveaways were underway and making news.

Buzi eventually decided to end the events – but continues to give back to his followers and others. We were curious what he learned from this experience and any other insights he was willing to share with us. 


In the end, how much did you end up giving out during all your Hidden Cash events
About $60,000 over the course of 2 1/2 months. I realize that’s more than many people’s annual income, but I’ve done very well financially, and wanted to give back. That’s the only reason I started this. Anonymously at first, but my cover was blown. In hindsight, I did get a little bit carried away, which was a big part of why I stopped doing the events. It was usurping all my time and energy and affecting my personal life, family, and business. It was fun though. A once in a lifetime type of experience. I have no regrets, but I needed to stop when I did. Now we are giving back online to some followers, and in other ways.

What are a few things that doing Hidden Cash opened your eyes to?
Doing Hidden Cash opened my eyes to a few things. Among them:

1. The power of social media.
We went from unknown (I hadn’t even had a Twitter account before) to about half a million followers in less than two weeks. It wasn’t anything we could have planned or anticipated. Sure, not everyone is hiding money, but we’ve had various imitators since, and some doing creative things like buying bottles of wine for strangers. This last one is here in the Bay Area, got some media coverage, but few followers. I do think we hit on something – using social media to connect people in a real life, fun way, and it was also good timing: summer, so the weather was good and people loved doing this outdoors activity, and also a slow news cycle (before Ebola and ISIS, etc.). But this could not have been planned.

2. How much need is out there
We get daily financial requests to this day. Unfortunately, we don’t have endless resources and this was always supposed to be just a fun way to give back. People have asked us to buy them a house or a car. That’s not going to happen. Only 5 years ago, I myself was living in a tiny apartment and driving an old car. I hope people realize they need to rely on themselves if they want to change their lives. Which ties into my third point:

3. How many of those in need are badly in need of some basic financial education
I had people write to me that they can’t afford the gas money but drove hundreds of miles to where we were doing a cash drop in hopes of finding some. This is like spending your final $100 of grocery or rent money on lottery tickets. It just makes no sense.

Speaking of the lottery, multiple people wrote something like “I’m going to play the lottery, so I can be rich like Hidden Cash“. I made my money as a real estate investor/developer, not by playing the lottery! If you drive through any wealthy neighborhood in the US or the world for that matter, I’m sure less than 1 in 1000 got there by playing the lottery. They either had high paying jobs like doctors, attorneys and senior executives. Or owned their own businesses. Or were real estate investors like myself.

I’ve read studies before, that in the lowest socioeconomic groups, among the poorest Americans, playing the lottery is considered a valid investment strategy by a majority of people.

There’s a narrative right now that the poor are poor due to exploitation or wage stagnation. While these are certainly factors (I went into a check cashing place recently as I needed to send a Western Union payment overseas; the posted rates for check cashing exceeded 400% APR!), it’s also very clear to me that financial education is desperately lacking. When I hear people saying they want to get a good education so they have a real career or want to learn real estate or start a business, it makes me hopeful. When I hear people spending money they can’t afford on lottery tickets, it makes me depressed!

Giving money away will always attract a crowd. What things were you most surprised about people and their quest to find cash?
I think actually, that for the most part, people were very orderly and none of the events got violent or really out of control. And that’s pretty remarkable considering you had hundreds of people (and in a couple cases, thousands) in a small area all looking for money. Another pleasant surprise is that many people said they were using the money to “pay it forward”, which was a big part of our message. They did this by buying a meal for a homeless person or treating those next to them to ice cream or donating to a charity.

You’re a big proponent of being “smart” with your money and the need for more financial literacy. How did you see this played out during Hidden Cash events?
Well, I think for most people, they knew this was just a fun game, and if they were lucky, they might find $40 or $100. And if not, they will go out there and have a good time with their friends or family or make some new friends. The messages we got overwhelmingly reflected that. But some people were so desperate financially, that they were looking at this as a way to pay their bills. Which made no sense to me, because first of all, it’s a game of chance.

Second of all, I think the biggest amount we ever gave out in one envelope was about $200 and that won’t solve anyone’s financial situation long term. I just wish people who are struggling would invest in themselves more, and figure out a good career or business or investment path. It breaks my heart to see people struggling, but I can’t help everyone. I’ve already given more away last year than I ever planned to, and will continue to. But I am not a billionaire, and people need to educate themselves.

As a successful real estate investor and businessman, what tips do you have for people to better manage their money and “get ahead”?
Well, first I want to let people know that I have been broke and I have been in debt. I had to borrow money from friends and relatives at one point just to keep a roof over my head. It wasn’t that many years ago, and I remember it very clearly.

The thing is, once I hit rock bottom, I realized I had to grow up and change my attitude towards money. I don’t really get it when people hit rock bottom but they don’t really want to change. It’s like “Aren’t you fed up enough to want to change your life?”. Well, I was. So I started doing real estate and doing it very aggressively and buying and flipping and keeping some properties. Networking, marketing, learning – the whole nine yards.

My advice is first of all, find something you’re passionate about AND can make you a good living. If you’re passionate about poetry or karaoke, that’s a great hobby, but not a career. If you’re passionate about spending time at the gym or computers, that could be a career. Some people say “live your dreams” and other people say “Be practical”. I say you need a balance of both. I think making movies would probably be a cooler way to make money than flipping houses, so should I have gone to Hollywood to pursue that? What would my chances of success be? Probably less than 1 in 1000, no matter how talented and persistent I was. I love real estate, but I also realized it was a practical way to make a really good living and achieve financial independence. I personally think it’s the best way.

Sometimes the best thing you can give a person who is down is hope, not cash
So find a career you love and will pay you well. Maybe start a business in it. Or just get a good paying job in the career. It also depends what field. A doctor or attorney can make a 6 figure income without ever being self employed. But to use the earlier example, if you’re into working out at the gym, I can guarantee you the gym owner is making the big bucks and not the personal trainer working there. Although he might make a decent income too. It also depends how ambitious you are. Some people are fine with making $50K a year. I know I wouldn’t be. And Hidden Cash, which brought joy to thousands, would never have happened if I was making $50K a year. Neither would many amazing experiences I have personally been fortunate to have. Learn business skills. There are so many great books and free information out there on investing. Way beyond the scope of this interview obviously. Being a real estate guy, I like real estate of course as an investment. Rental properties are good. But so are solid dividend paying stocks and some other conservative investments that pay a decent rate. I don’t like bonds right now because rates are so low, you’re not even keeping up with inflation. But I would be conservative. You don’t want to work hard for your money and then risk losing it all on some penny stock or speculative investment. If you’re going to speculate, do that with maybe 10% of your money. Think of it as “Vegas money”, a gamble basically. A couple years ago, I bet $10K on Facebook by buying options. Basically, the stock just had to make a big move, either up or down, and I would have tripled or quadrupled my money. Well, it had been making big moves, both up and down, just before I bought my options. But of course, once I bought them, it just sat there, and my options became worthless. So I lost 10 grand. It sucked, but I could afford it. It would have been extremely foolish if that were my life savings. So don’t gamble, or if you do, set reasonable limits.

What other types of things have you got planned in the wake of Hidden Cash?
Well, right now we are doing #15daysofcash, which started on Valentine’s Day and goes to the end of February. We ask people what they’d like to do for a loved one, and every day we pick a winner, retweet them, and send them $100. We have been able to help people spend time with a distant relative, take care of their pets, get something for their Mom, honor a grandparent, take care of their wife, and much more. It’s been very gratifying. My partner in this venture, Yan, and I are going to brainstorm more ways to give back.

We want to do some local stuff, not just online. We’ve both been busy with our lives and careers, so it’s not like we do this full time, but we want to keep connecting with people this way. Especially as we have about 650K followers still. We also like inspiring people with positive messages. Not everything is about money. Sometimes the best thing you can give a person who is down is hope, not cash.

When can folks expect your book to be published?
We did an IndieGoGo campaign, which has now ended (may extend it at some point). We sold a few hundred books of “Hidden Cash: The Inside Story” and it also has some life and business advice in there. I am doing the final editing now and expect to send them out in the next 2 weeks (by mid March). The profits are going to Feeding America.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to wish all our followers the best. This has been an amazing experience, and although the cash drops are probably over, we will keep coming up with different ways to give back in a fun way. Without our fans and followers, this would have never been the amazing experience it has been.

You can follow Jason and Hidden Cash on Twitter @HiddenCash

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6 comments

  1. Tammy Hoffman says:

    I just want to tell u again, Thank You guy’s for the smiles, stories, advice and getting me through some depression even, at time’s! Living in Ohio, these winter’s get Very long! ;) I have pain issue’s and seeing GOOD stories instead of same old everyday BAD stuff in this World, you have helped so many people without giving a dime to them! God Bless you and hope to meet you two, one day just to say it in person! A true fan from Ohio, Tammy

  2. crystal says:

    i love all the points he made on the way we the people think now a days financially and i agree and really admire his desire to say whats being done wrong so we can fix it and do it right. he really cares about trying to help people better themselves.

  3. Kalie says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes generosity isn’t covered enough as a financial topic so I appreciate this post. And his investment advice is helpful.

    I prefer to refer to generous sharing as “giving” rather than “giving back,” because I think the term “giving back” hints at the notion that there is a fixed amount of money in the economy and rich people get rich by taking away from those less fortunate. I know that is not what Buzi did or what anyone is saying he did. And if you’re giving away money like that you can call it whatever you want! Just a thought, though.

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