Government freebies

5 ways the government can save you money

“We the people of the United States” really aren’t sure how to finish this historical sentence.

Only a third of Americans can name all three branches of the federal government, according to a survey released for Constitution Day by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Another third can’t name a single one. (Legislative writes the law, judicial upholds it, executive applies it.)

More than half admit they don’t know who controls the House of Representatives or gave the wrong answer. (Republicans.) Even more got the Senate wrong. (Democrats.)

Constitution Day was yesterday (because it was signed on September 17, 1787) and that means we can spend the other 364 days celebrating our ignorance of America’s founding document and the system of government it created.

Or we can learn something. Preferably something that matters to us, instead of trivia like “the capital of Liberia is named after the fifth U.S. president.” Here are five government initiatives you might care a little more about, because nothing says American like “land of the free”…

1. Free trees

Many cities give residents free trees during a specific period of the year. If your city is listed on the Tree City USA directory, it’s probably one of them.

The number and type of trees vary — some only give shade trees, while others have fruit trees. Some let you pick what you want from a list, in which case you may want to learn about the fastest-growing trees. You’ll also get instructions on how to properly plant and care for your trees. Tree removal is sometimes free, too, should you need it.

Seattle has given away more than 4,000 trees since 2009, and some species are so popular they have a waiting list.

2. Free paint

Many cities or counties also give away free paint, but there may be more catches — your income might need to be under a certain threshold, and you may have to pass a home inspection. But it’s probably available for a longer period, sometimes year-round.

Color choices are often limited to neutral grays and beiges, probably because that’s easiest to make out of paint recycled at hazardous waste sites. But you might get lucky and find somebody donated the perfect color if you check often enough.

3. Free money

Ever missed a mail-in rebate check? Tax refund? Had an account with a bank that collapsed?

People move around, things get lost in the shuffle, and governments hold onto a lot of money that somehow never found its way to the right hands. While not technically government freebies — they’re things you already should’ve gotten — they make it surprisingly easy to find any unclaimed money or property in your name. There’s a whole section of USA.gov devoted to it.

Get help with your student loan questions

4. Free student loan help

More than 90 percent of student loans are backed by the federal government, so they have the ability to cut you a break. There’s a whole Department of Education site explaining your options to get on a better payment plan, take a break from payments, or even get your loans forgiven. (It’s not a quick process, and limited to certain jobs.)

Of course, this being the federal government, your degree better be in English or math to understand what they’re talking about. We’ve tried to help explain it all in layman’s terms.

5. Housing help

After the financial crisis, the federal government established two big programs to help keep people in their homes — the Hardest Hit Fund, which initially helped people in 16 states get loan modifications or mortgage payment assistance, and Making Home Affordable, which can help lower mortgage payments or interest rates in any state.

These are complicated programs that not everybody qualifies for, but there’s a federal hotline staffed by housing experts. It’s free and available around-the-clock.

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