This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes a personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

The most-read piece I ever wrote for MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog was an essay called “See a penny? Pick it up!” It got more than 1,657,000 hits before MSN changed blog platforms. After that, the penny essay and most of the other things I’d written went to live on a farm, where they can run and play with all the other articles.

And me? Still gleaning dropped coins. I pick up road pennies with copper coatings ravaged by traffic. I fish nickels out of puddles. I’ve spied dimes glinting across parking lots. I rescue quarters from bus-stop gutters.

Occasionally I find paper money, usually one-dollar bills. This year was unusual because I found a $10 and a $20 bill along with 23 quarters, 52 dimes, 15 nickels and 288 pennies.

I can cite the particulars because I save my “found” money all year, in a vase that my daughter gave me when she was in third or fourth grade. She was so proud of that gift, which she found in the “free” box at a yard sale. I was so proud that she’d found treasure in someone else’s trash.

Which brings me to the reaction a lot of people have to my picking up pennies: Eeeewwww! That money’s DIRTY!

Well, no kidding. This year I traveled twice to Philly (where I used to live) and to Manhattan, where I reacquainted myself with this fact: No matter where you sit, stand or lean in a big city, somebody has probably urinated there.

But it’s not as though I carry these coins home in my mouth. And sorry to burst your hygienic plastic bubble, but the money you get from the bank or in change at the comic-book store is probably just as invisibly appalling as the stuff I find on the bike path.

Filthy lucre?
Science News reported on an Australian study about bacteria found on paper money. The U.S. dollars harbored anywhere from 20 to 25,000 bacteria apiece. (Ever held a folded bill between your lips or teeth while you fished in your wallet for change? I bet you won’t do it again.)

A fungicidal agent is added to U.S. currency ink, and the metal in some of our coins has anti-microbial properties. This may be small consolation if you, like me, have ever seen people pull money from socks, shoes and bras. Or watched someone sneeze into his hand before fishing around in the “take a penny, leave a penny” dish.

This explains why so many cashiers have bottles of hand sanitizer at their stations. Bank employees also know that most money is unspeakably germy. They treat it all as though it came from under fresh piles of dog poo.

Helpful hint: Want to break a nail-biting habit? Go to work at a bank. When you see how dirty your hands are 8 hours of counting currency, you will never willingly touch your mouth again unless you’re wearing latex gloves spritzed with Clorox.

But folks, we’re surrounded by bugs. Doorknobs, vending machines, women’s purses, shopping carts, bus seats, yoga mats and libraries are crawling with cooties. So are our children and our pets. (Elementary schools are Petri dishes for rhinoviruses. And those of you who kiss your kitties would do well to remember that a cat’s tongue is its washcloth and also its toilet paper.)

I don’t sweat the grime on my street funds because:

  1. I have soap and water at home and hand sanitizer in my backpack, and
  2. I’m not picking up the coins for myself

At the end of the year I roll up my coins and deposit them, then write a check to the food bank that helped both my daughter and me when times were grim. (This year’s finds totaled $44.58 but I made the check out for $50.)

Some people don’t think it’s worth their time to stop and pick up change. Others don’t think it’s dignified to pluck coins from a vending machine coin return. I’ve even heard it said that you should leave the money for someone who really needs it.

Here’s what I think:

  • If it isn’t worth your time, don’t do it.
  • If you’re embarrassed, don’t do it.

The food bank’s constituency defines “someone who really needs it.” And according to the hunger-relief charity Feeding America, $1 provides the makings for eight meals. I keep that in mind every time I pick up a penny: Another 99 of these and eight people get to have supper.

The bottom line, dime by dime
If it’s more than a penny, so much the better. But in my experience the one-cent piece is the one that lots of folks think isn’t worth noticing. I disagree, respectfully.

In part that’s because I’m so old that I remember penny candy. When we walked to and from school I kept a sharp eye out for stray specie. A single cent could be traded for a Squirrel Nut Zipper (the candy, not the band), a sour grape gumball, a roll of Smarties, a peppermint stick or any number of delights from our rural township’s one store. You could even get two Hershey’s Kisses for a penny. Those were the days.

More to the point, I believe in that old saw, “Take care of your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves.” It’s not that I think a lone Lincoln will generally make or break the bottom line. (“You must pay the rent!” “But I can’t pay the rent! I’m one penny short!”) No, it’s that seeing dropped coins everywhere makes me wonder about our sense of what money is.

After all, it’s “only” a penny. Why pick it up? But pennies add up to dollars, and dollars that aren’t properly managed dissolve into tarnished coppers. One way to lose sight of the bottom line is to forget that it’s made up of small change.

Note: Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, was famous (perhaps apocryphally so) for picking up dropped coins.

Or maybe you’re one of the people for whom a few cents really will make your day, or break your heart. A common example: The supermarket shopper with five store-brand items, one of which he has to put back. Or would have to, if someone behind him in line didn’t pony up the extra 17 cents.

Best places to look for coins

  • Under the couch cushions (duh)
  • In the rejected-change bin of coin-counting machines like Coinstar
  • Near parking meters in early springtime, as the snow melts
  • Under your feet at the checkout counter of just about any supermarket or drugstore
  • Around the self-service vacuum at car washes and gas stations
  • The bottom of the ball crawl at Chuck E. Cheese (or so an MSN Money reader claimed)
  • Beaches and playgrounds, especially if you have a metal detector

(The funniest place I ever found spare change? Under couch cushions — but the sofa in question was sitting on a street corner wearing a “free” sign.)

Small expenses
I don’t pick up every coin I see. A few days ago I was getting off the bus while carrying two incredibly heavy bags. I walked right by a dime in the aisle because I couldn’t get it easily and didn’t want to hold up the line by trying.

Occasionally I’m in a hurry, or for some reason just don’t feel like stopping and reaching for a coin. Generally I tell myself, “Come on, it’s for the kids” — i.e., the hungry kids — and then pick up the change.

This is not my only form of charitable giving, incidentally. I give money all year long to health, social service and educational organizations. The found-coins fund is just another string in my fiddle — but why not play it for all it’s worth? That $44.58 rounded up to $50 equals 400 people not going to bed hungry.

The expression “nickel-and-dime” in its adjectival sense means “of little importance.” If you think of coins in that way, they’re easy to dismiss.

As a verb, “nickel and dime” means “to impoverish through small expenses.” Minor obligations — bus fare, cough medicine, class trips — can really bust a budget, especially if you’re a 99er or a minimum-wage worker.

Yes, earning more money is preferable to washing plastic bags. But not everyone can earn more money right now. (Hello, Detroit!) If that’s you, I propose a simple three-part plan:

  • Pick up any coins you find
  • Save them in a jar
  • Every time you get a dollar’s worth, exchange them at the corner store and put the singles back in the jar

Congratulations! You nickel-and-dimed your way to a teeny little emergency fund!

Each coin has value
Picking up coins is my personal choice. I’m not saying anyone else has to do it. I’m just putting it out there as a possibility. You should do whatever works for you. What works for me is picking up the money and giving it to a food bank. That’s just how I roll, so to speak. (J.D.’s note: I’ve docked Donna’s pay for that pun.)

Even if you decide not to do this, at least pay attention to the coins in your pocket or wallet. Viewed singly they may seem insignificant. But each one has value — and power.
Just ask the underemployed or the 99ers. If you’re a buck short on bus fare the day before payday, that found-coin dollar from the glass-jar EF means you can get to work. If your unemployment check isn’t due until Friday, a palmful of coins buys five packages of on-sale ramen for a week’s worth of lunches.

Neither situation is ideal. Still, be glad that a whole lot of people couldn’t be bothered to pick up those pennies before you got there.

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