The Des Moines Register 12 May 1998

It's penny-wise to pass on the penny

It could happen to anyone. You walk into a fast-food place 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 U.S. 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. In a recent CBS survey, two-thirds of adults said 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 minutiae as the composition of metals for the new penny.

Today, because many transactions are cashless -replaced by electronic payments, checks and credit cards -the penny has become irrelevant. Cash-based services, such as 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 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-cent 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 transaction. Suppose that on average you engage in two cash transactions per day involving pennies. Over 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 in the 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 is a junior at Yale University majoring in computer science and mathematics. This was written for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.


The Des Moines Register 11 June 1998

Penny-wise thief shuns copper coins in bank heist

By TOM ALEX Register Staff Writer

The lowly United States cent suffered another humiliating setback in Des Moines early Wednesday when a bank burglar skipped over a bag of pennies during a break-in.

Sheesh. It was bad enough when people quit bending over to pick them up; it was worse when people started giving them up in cash register bowls to help other customers round off purchases.

And now this. "People won't even steal them," joked Des Moines police Detective Sgt. Robert Ervin. "Apparently too much weight for the value."

The overnight break-in was discovered Wednesday morning at the Community State Bank at 2100 Hubbell Ave. Someone apparently had walked inside the outside door, which is always unlocked, and then broke in the inside door. The thief pried open a coin-counting machine in the coin room and took the quarters, dimes, nickels. But the Abe Lincolns were left behind.

No arrest was immediately reported.

The thief's disdain for the copper coin is common. "It's certainly inefficient to have the penny," said Richard Carter, associate professor of finance at Iowa State University. "The penny isn't very efficient because you have to handle the thing."

David Bookstaber, a computer science and math major at Yale University, pointed out in an opinion piece in The Register just last month that when the U.S. half-cent coin was abolished by an act of Congress in 1857, it was worth more than 8 cents in today's currency.

"People had no problem in the following decades, during which the smallest unit of currency was worth more than our dime today."


Reporter Tom Alex can be reached at (515) 284-8088 or