Broke in Philly

Picking up pennies on Philly streets, and turning them into philanthropy

Lisa Phillips uses her knack for finding loose change to help wipe out medical debt.

Lisa Phillips with her rescue dogs Charlie and Daisy. While on walks she searches out money on the street and collects it for charity.

Lisa Phillips with her rescue dogs Charlie and Daisy. While on walks she searches out money on the street and collects it for charity.

Courtesy Lisa Phillips
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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Lisa Phillips is good at finding money on the street. Like, really good.

She’s found upwards of $750 over the past couple years, she said, seeking it out on Philly sidewalks, streets, in parking lots and alleyways.

The 57-year-old Spring Garden resident is so savvy when it comes to spotting copper and nickel that it’s become a regular practice. Every day when she walks her two dogs, Charlie and Daisy, she’s got her eyes glued to the ground.

“I’ve always had this knack for finding things, not just money, but other stuff too,” Phillips said. “I’m also 4-foot-10, so I have a better perspective on seeing things because I’m closer to the ground.”

Phillips decided to turn her hidden talent into a public effort in 2019. Every cent she finds along her daily four-mile journey goes to a Rye, N.Y.,-based nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt. The organization helps pay off health care expenses incurred by people at or below the poverty line. Added bonus: because of how financial collection works, every penny Phillips finds is worth a hundredfold in debt elimination.

“It all starts with one penny. That’s the whole thing,” Phillips said. “Everybody’s got a jar of pennies somewhere. Why throw them out when they could be put to use?”

At the recommendation of her daughter, Phillips also posts regular updates to Instagram on the account @PhilaStreetFinds.

Not every journey procures riches. Last Wednesday, Phillips walked four miles only to find four cents. It was her lowest value day in quite some time.

“It’s not one of my stellar days,” said Phillips, a mom and hobby photographer. “There are days when it’s a buck, a buck and a half, whatever.”

Phillips has had a knack for finding money for a long time, but it has become second nature in recent years as she walks her two rescue dogs — she’s continually looking down, watching out for chicken bones or anything else the pups might find appealing.

On her best day, Phillips found three $20 bills in a row on the 1700 block of Callowhill. “No one is aware how much money people drop on the ground,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Part of her strategy: Phillips takes a different route each day. She wasn’t willing to share some  of the most lucrative spots — she wants to preserve her territory. But in general, she said, Center City is the best place to look. Entrances to stores, drive-thru windows, and parking lots are especially fruitful.

She started to sweat in February 2020 when the Philadelphia Parking Authority began swapping traditional meters with kiosks that take credit cards, because that used to be a huge hit for her.

“I remember thinking, ‘Jeez, where am I gonna find the money now?'” she recalled.

She’s also found wallets, phones, drivers’ licenses, medical ID cards, pairs of glasses — even wedding gifts. Whenever there’s identifying information associated with the loot, she makes every effort to return it.

But if it’s just plain money, she’ll collect it for charity… no matter the circumstances.

“One of the funniest times, I found a dollar bill in a melted bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream,” Phillips said. “Because I walk my dogs, I have pickup bags. It was very easy to pick up the dollar and clean it when I got home.”

All the effort adds up. In the first six months of this year, Phillips has found more than $180.

“She’s the kind of person that, when she gets into a project, she gets really into it,” said her daughter, Amy Phillips, who’s 28. “Most people would not stick with something like this as long as she has. This is like her hobby now, and she’s gotten very good at it.”

So far, Phillips has given almost $800 to RIP Medical Debt, and because collectors buy unpaid debt at a fraction of the price — in the case of medical debt, just a penny on the dollar — that amount has effectively wiped out nearly $80,000 of medical deficit.

“It’s amazing what a daily practice of walking with an eye open to opportunity can produce,” said Scott G. Patton, RIP Medical Debt’s director of development.

“It also says a lot about medical billing in America,” Patton added. “That hundreds of financially struggling people with thousands of dollars of medical bills could ultimately have their debt abolished by change picked up off of the street.”

Want some more? Explore other Broke in Philly stories.

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