Every penny counts - check that none of yours are missing

In times like these, it's worth making sure you know where all of your money is. Tim Bennett explains how to find any dormant bank accounts, lost shares or pensions, and recover the money. Plus, what to do with your unwanted Christmas gifts.

Happy New Year!

Such as it is. The Icelandic weather isn't helping to lift spirits and neither is Britain's increasingly Icelandic-looking economy. Retailers continue to fail apace Wedgwood was the latest and consultancy Experian expects 1,400 more to disappear soon.

Meanwhile, unemployment is tipped to rise to one in ten, according to the British Chamber of Commerce; and GDP, it says, could fall by 20% more than during the recession of the early 1990s. Few, other than Chancellor Alistair Darling (who is, of course, a little biased), now expect the economy to rally before 2010.

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Now more than ever, every penny counts, so it's worth checking that none of yours are missing. As Lauren Thompson points out in The Times, some of us may have "hundreds or even thousands lying untouched in forgotten accounts or investments". The total amount across the UK could be £15bn, says Experian. That makes no sense it is, after all, your money. So here's how to get it back.

Dormant bank accounts

There is so much cash lying around unclaimed in bank and building society accounts that have seen "no customer initiated activity for 15 years" that the government plans to pool it all and use it to fund community projects. Fear not, this won't stop you making a claim but why put it off any longer?

Dormant accounts can arise for many reasons people move house and forget to tell their bank, childhood accounts get forgotten or people pass away without heirs realising an account even exists. Banks now have to at least try to reunite you with your money under the Banking Code, but that's pretty tricky for them if they have no idea where, or perhaps even who, you are.

Meanwhile HSBC, currently running a campaign to contact dormant account holders, estimates that the average account contains £1,400. One good way of tracking these down is via the free website mylostaccount which covers most banks and building societies plus the government's National Savings Bank. If you have lost touch with a family member and think you may be an heir, try the Probate Registry (see information at ancestor-search.info). The registry keeps a National Probate Index which indexes all wills in England and Wales from 1858 to today. Copies can be obtained in person or by post for a search and copy fee, currently both £5.

Lost shares

Mislay share certificates or forget to keep track of 'corporate actions' such as mergers and acquisitions and you could miss out on dividends or other perks that accrue directly to the registered owner. As Richard Hunter at Hargreaves Lansdown notes, if you recall owning shares but have lost certificates you can contact the registrars direct these are Capita Registrars, Computershare and Equiniti.

Lost pensions

If you move job frequently you may join a number of different employers' pension schemes and accumulate several small pension pots. In an ideal world, each of your employers would pay into the same free-standing personal pension plan, but some will not agree to this. The risk is that when you leave, or move, the rump pension pot you have built up from your employer's contributions, which you may not draw down for years until retirement, gets forgotten.

If you can recall the name of a former provider then just phone them. Otherwise, for occupational schemes, try the Pensions Tracing Service. Finally, if you think you may have lost assets but can't remember anything about them, Experian will attempt to reunite you with anything that appears on their own database of unclaimed pensions, life assurance policies, unit trusts and dividends for a non-refundable fee of £25 at the Unclaimed Assets Register.

So much for lost assets. But what about those you didn't want in the first place?

Getting rid of unwanted gifts

They say "it's the thought that counts", and with some Christmas presents it has to be. All of us have at some point received gifts that are useless, inappropriate, already owned, the wrong colour, the wrong size, or all of these combined. So what can you do?

If you have the receipt, and the shop runs a refunds policy, you are home and dry. If not, a bit more effort may be required. I once got rid of three unwanted sets of Top Trump cards on Noel Edmonds' Saturday morning Swap Shop - but thankfully things have moved on since then. At swapz.co.uk for example, you can post details of the goods you would like online and what you have to offer in return. Alternatively Swapitshop will put a value on your item in 'points' which can be used later to buy other items on the site.

SnaffleUp, on the other hand, allows you to post details of stuff you will let go for nothing provided the buyer comes and collects it (as does Freecycle). For cash sales, try joining auction site eBay or posting a 'for sale' advert on a site such as Gumtree. Beware that the latter is not linked to a secure payments system, so arrange payment by cash or cheque much better than giving away credit card details to a stranger over the internet.

Last, but definitely not least, why not help out charities that are being squeezed as donations are cut, by giving away unwanted gifts? Most charity shops will happily accept new or nearly-new goods. And if you were lucky enough to receive a new mobile phone or any other electronic equipment, many charities will happily accept your old model.

This article is taken from our weekly Money Sense email. Sign up to Money Sense here.

Tim graduated with a history degree from Cambridge University in 1989 and, after a year of travelling, joined the financial services firm Ernst and Young in 1990, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1994.

He then moved into financial markets training, designing and running a variety of courses at graduate level and beyond for a range of organisations including the Securities and Investment Institute and UBS. He joined MoneyWeek in 2007.