Tuesday, April 7, 1998 - THE HARTFORD COURANT

A Penny Saved Is A Waste

It could happen to anyone. You walk into a fast food joint for a sandwich and drink. The total with tax is $3.41. You fumble through your pockets for change, rolling your eyes as you fail to come up with that stray cent. The unsympathetic cashier breaks open a new roll of pennies. And you sound like an undercover flamenco dancer as you walk away with the added weight in your pocket.

What happens to those annoying hundredths of a dollar after you spill them onto your counter at home? They may be saved for a later purchase, but they will probably end up lost or thrown away.

So many pennies disappear that every year the United States Mint needs to produce more than 13 billion of them, at a cost of more than $110 million. That exceeds twice the annual output of all other coins combined. Meanwhile, pennies serve no useful economic purpose, instead clogging up the cash infrastructure and landfills of our country. This is not just inconvenient, it's ridiculous.

Nevertheless, the average American is ignorant of the cost of the penny. A recent CBS survey indicates that two thirds of adults say the Treasury should keep minting the coins.

It is hard to make an aesthetic or sentimental argument in favor of the penny. It is not needed to commemorate Lincoln, since he is immortalized on the $5 bill (among other places). Furthermore, penny-lovers have had ample opportunity to collect as many as they could possibly want: about 350 billion of the coins have been circulated. History also argues against keeping the penny around. It has been the smallest unit of American currency since 1857 when the half-cent was abolished by an act of Congress. At the time, the loss of the half-cent was such a non-issue that not a single word was spoken against dropping it during a drawn-out debate that dwelled extensively on such minutia as the composition of metals for the new penny.

Today, because most transactions are cashless—replaced by electronic payment, checks, and credit cards—the penny has become irrelevant. Cash-based services like coin-operated machines and mass-transit have also eliminated the use of pennies.

Nevertheless, the penny is perpetuated in low-priced retail services-convenience stores and fast food chains—where cash is preferred. Here, sales tax and vendors (who actually think they can fool consumers by pricing to 9 cents) will always conspire to contribute to our penny jars. But it is easy to deal with these problems.

The simplest way is to round to the nearest nickel, in which case on average nobody loses a cent. Rounding is already done to bring sales tax and interest to the nearest penny. So it would be easy for the business to round, say, a $.95 cheeseburger that formerly cost (with tax) $1.01 to $1 without changing either the nominal price or the tax rate. Government could absorb any cost of rounding, adjusting rates to yield the same revenues.

But consider even the worst case scenario. Businesses decide to consistently round against the consumer. On average, the customer will lose 2 cents in each such transaction. Suppose that on average you engage in two cash transactions per day involving pennies. (This, of course, includes neither those purchases made by credit card or check, nor the purchase of a subway token, a 25 cent phone call, or even a $1.50 slice of pizza.) Over the course of a year you will probably lose $14.60, or, to put it in more relevant terms, a large pizza with mushrooms and green peppers. The average person probably has more money than that tied up in some jar of pennies that will never be cashed in.

Besides, this $14 is not really lost, just transferred from the consumer to the business. In contrast, the $110 million spent annually to mint pennies really is lost-it could be spent on something else, like Social Security reform, repaying the national debt or investigating the president.

In fact, if we were really smart, we would follow this reasoning through to drop the nickel as well. When the half-cent was abolished in 1857, it was worth more than 8 cents in today's currency. People had no problem living in following decades, during which the smallest unit of currency was worth more than our dime today.

Halting production of the 1.5 billion nickels minted annually would save an additional $47 million a year. We would get along fine without them. Besides, as many young Americans point out: Shouldn't the dime, being our smallest coin, also be the smallest denomination?

David Bookstaber, of Short Hills, N.J., is a junior at Yale University majoring in computer science and mathematics.