July 03, 2006
Save the penny!

Pity the poor penny, the least beloved coin in America. There's another push on to get rid of it.

For the first time, the U.S. Mint has said pennies are costing more than 1 cent to make this year, thanks to higher metal prices. "The penny is going to disappear soon unless something changes in the economics of commodities," says Robert Hoge, an expert on North American coins at The American Numismatic Society.

That very idea of spending 1.2 cents to put 1 cent into play strikes many people as "faintly ridiculous," says Jeff Gore, of Elkton, Md., founder of a little group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny.


The idea of a penniless society began to gain currency in 1989 with a bill in Congress to round off purchases to the nearest nickel. It was dropped, but the General Accounting Office in a 1996 report unceremoniously acknowledged that some people consider the penny a "nuisance coin."

In 2002, Gallup polling found that 58 percent of Americans stash pennies in piggy banks, jars, drawers and the like, instead of spending them like other coins. Some people eventually redeem them at banks or coin-counting machines, but 2 percent admit to just plain throwing pennies out!

"Today it's a joke. It's outlived its usefulness," says Tony Terranova, a New York City coin dealer who paid $437,000 for a 1792 penny prototype in what is believed to be the denomination's highest auction price.


Another problem: deciding what to make the penny from. Copper, bronze and zinc have been used, even steel in 1943 when copper was desperately needed for the World War II effort. In 1982, zinc replaced most of the penny's copper to save money, but rising zinc prices are now bedeviling the penny again.

"I'm very surprised they haven't gone to plastic," muses Bill Johnson, a wheat-penny collector who owns the Plimoth Candy Co. (It uses an old spelling of Plymouth.)

I'm pretty sure the American public is not ready for plastic currency, though frankly it's not a terrible idea. I've got to think there's a cheaper metal option, however.

The penny took on the profile of President Lincoln, beloved as the Union's savior during the Civil War, on the centennial of his birth in 1909. The first ones carried ears of wheat on the tails side, but the Lincoln memorial has replaced those. Four new tails designs with themes from Lincoln's life are planned for 2009, with a fifth permanent one afterward to summarize his legacy.

This redesign, the first major one since 1959, has heartened penny lovers.

Those who want to keep the penny coin include small merchants who prefer cash transactions, contractors who help supply pennies, and consumer advocates who fear rounding up of purchases.

"We think the penny is important as a hedge to inflation," says director Mark Weller of Americans for Common Cents. "Any time you have more accurate pricing, consumers benefit."

I love the idea of a new design for the penny. When will it be the dime's turn? That's the only one that hasn't had a makeover proposed lately, at least that I'm aware of.

I tend to agree about the rounding up. What do you think all those $X.99 prices will become in the absence of the penny? Not that this makes a huge difference at the micro level, but it's still a price increase.

Another good argument for the penny:

Scores of charities esteem the penny, which many Americans donate without a second thought. Like shouts in a playground, pennies can multiply quickly.

"People don't like carrying them around, so we dump them into the nearest bowl," says Teddy Gross, who founded the Penny Harvest charity drive in New York City schools. "By the end of any given year, most Americans have got a stash of capital which is practically useless, but it's within easy reach of a young person."

Last year, his children raked in 55 million pennies, which had to be redeemed with help from the Brink's security company. They also bagged about 200,000 spare nickels.

$550K for what is essentially throwaway change. Not too shabby. I should mention that when Tiffany and I were first dating, I had a huge container of mostly pennies that I'd inherited from my ex-roommate Matt when he moved out. Tiffany cashed them in and got enough to buy me a little vacuum cleaner, something which I as a slobbola bachelor had not previously owned. They really do add up over time.

By the way, the Mint says nickels are also costing more to produce than they're worth. Pity the poor nickel?

If we do some day get rid of the penny, then I think there is an argument to go all the way and make all prices end in zero, so that the dime is the smallest coin in circulation. Or you could leave everything in place and re-value the currency so that the penny becomes worth a dime. That'll never happen, of course, but it would at least make the penny more respectable.

Anyway. I'm happy to keep the penny around. Let's find a way to make it cost less to mint, and go from there.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 03, 2006 to Society and cultcha | TrackBack

No one complains that the $100 bill costs significantly less than $100 to make AND that the $100 bill is made out of paper. So the question for the penny is: "(do you want) paper or plastic?"

As far as eliminating it, our currency is alot easier to round by decimal placement, so if the penny is eliminated, the nickel should be too, so we are basically moving the decimal point and accounting practices don't become a nightmare.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on July 3, 2006 11:04 AM

You may be interested to see the results of our "save the penny" poll at www.pennysaverusa.com

Posted by: PennySaverUSA on August 22, 2006 12:03 PM

Since the 1790s, when the American penny was first minted, the small copper coin has been very important to America. It symbolizes the freedom and liberty that the United States and its citizens value so dearly.

Although small in monetary value, the one-cent coin is important in many ways.

For instance, there are many charitable organizations that use the penny as the basis for their donations to our communities. The Common Cents Penny Harvest Program, based in New York City, asks students to harvest "idle" pennies from their homes and neighborhoods, beginning in October. In January, the students who have met the guidelines will receive $1,000 from a group of philanthropists. The money received is turned into grants that fund community-service projects led by students.

Another such organization is the Penny Lovers of America, based in New Jersey. It holds a penny-recycling campaign to raise money to send disadvantaged kids to college.

In Oakland, Calif., children as young as 4 are learning about the importance of community service. They are pitching in with Good Cents for Oakland by holding penny drives and donating their proceeds to their community.

Although 66 percent of Americans surveyed want to keep the penny in circulation (and 80 percent would stop to pick up a penny from the street), Congressman Jim Kolbe is trying to eradicate the penny. Where would these organizations be without the penny? What about the disadvantaged students who rely on Penny Lovers of America to help pay their college tuition? With what would my 4-year-old son fill his piggy bank?

The penny has great importance symbolically and monetarily to our country and citizens. Please fight to save the penny!



Posted by: Amanda K. Roche on September 8, 2006 3:33 PM