Commentary: I have decided that one of my new goals is to die penniless. Literally. Meaning without pennies.
To be clear, I hope to still have a few dollars in the bank when I go. But no more pennies.
To rid myself of this copper menace will mean ensuring that I have at least four of them with me during all future cash transactions. Any purchase that requires the exchange of pennies must have me giving, not taking.
Even then, it won’t be easy. I couldn’t begin to guess how many pennies I have, but it includes an oversized mock Budweiser bottle filled with pennies that I’ve been using to prop up the front right corner of the bottom self on my bookcase for the last 20 year or so.
I’ve been hoarding pennies since childhood. My parents are to blame.
When I was young, my dad put a large jar with a slot cut into the top on our kitchen counter and told us to put all of our pennies in it. I kept a steady watch as it would slowly fill up, and felt a sense of accomplishment when dad would finally take the jar to the bank and cash in.
My big sister was taking a calligraphy class at the time, and made a sign to hang above the jar with Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
That saying doesn’t make any sense. Pennies aren’t rabbits. Sure, a penny saved today can be spent tomorrow. But it only spends once. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to do some earning.
My family’s fascination with the penny didn’t end with the big jar on the kitchen counter. We also had a collection, with the goal of finding at least one penny for every year since 1909. Each time I would get an old penny for change, I would check the date to see if it was one of the years we needed.
All of this happened in my hometown of Denver, home of the Denver mint, where they make billions of pennies.
We took a field trip to the mint when I was in school. And if I remember correctly, they had gold bars, which they told us were needed to back up the spending power of all those bright, shiny pennies coming off the production line.
Now, the lowly penny has become so useless as a form of currency that stores have started placing small boxes next to the cash register where customers can just give and take as many as they need.
They used to say that finding a penny was good luck. Now, they’re everywhere. If you drop a penny, the only reason you would go to the effort of bending down to pick it up is to keep from littering.
Because the copper in pennies is worth more than the penny itself, Congress passed a law in 2005 that makes it illegal to melt them. Also, you can’t take more than five dollars worth of pennies and nickels outside of the country when traveling.
It is not a federal crime to deface a penny, despite what all my friends told me as we placed them on the railroad tracks and waited for the train, imagining ourselves to be some kind of outlaws.
It may not be illegal, but it’s not easy either. Without being able to melt them, the things are nearly indestructible. Even after the train rolls over them, they’re bent but not broken.
The best estimate I could find as to how many pennies are currently in circulation is “a few hundred billion.” There are about 8 billion new pennies minted every year.
Clearly, pennies will be around long after cockroaches, Keith Richards and I are all gone. But I’m doing my small part in the years I have left to be rid of them.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org