If you’re not using cash, you’re not circulating any coins.
Stores around the U.S. are struggling with an unexpected shortage. (No, not toilet paper — sorry, we’ve already made that joke.) They’re running low on coins.
Supermarkets and gas stations across the U.S. are asking shoppers to pay with a card or produce exact change when possible. Walmart has converted some of its self-checkout registers to accept only plastic. Kroger is offering to load change that would normally involve coins onto loyalty cards. Some Wawa gas stations are accepting coin rolls in exchange for bills.
The trouble began weeks ago, when the coronavirus pandemic delivered a bizarre double blow to the U.S. supply of quarters, dimes, nickels and even pennies. Social distancing and other safety measures slowed production of coins at the U.S. Mint. But also fewer coins made their way from customers to banks, coin-sorting kiosks and stores’ cash registers as people holed up at home.
“The flow of coins through the economy … kind of stopped,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers in June.
That month, the Fed began rationing coins. Soon after, business groups — representing grocers, convenience stores, retailers, gas station operators and others — wrote to Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that the situation was an emergency.
“We were alarmed to hear that the system for distributing coins throughout the country is at the breaking point,” they wrote on June 23, offering a series of suggestions for how to fix it. A week later, the Fed announced it would convene a U.S. Coin Task Force to address the matter.
All things considered, I’d generally rather use cash for buying lunch and other small purchases. Old habits, I suppose, plus I know that no one is taking a cut of the cash away from the merchant I’m patronizing. But since we all started staying home and doing contactless transactions, I’ve barely used the stuff. I haven’t hit an ATM since February. I do tip more, and more often, now that it’s all credit card all the time. That’s something I need to pay attention to going forward. I do look forward to the day when I can just hand over a $20 for my lunch, if only because it will be a sure sign that things have returned to some kind of normal.