A penny saved is a penny spurned? What to do with pockets full of change

I regularly empty the change from my wallet. Pennies, nickels and dimes go into a pink piggy bank. Quarters go into “Mr. Nest Egg,” a bank shaped like Humpty Dumpty.

The quarters are for when I finally get around to washing my jeans. The rest of the change gets wrapped every so often and deposited into my “Home” account, where I’m saving for a down payment.

I’m one of the lucky ones: My bank accepts rolled coins. Not every financial institution accepts large quantities of coins — and some of the ones that do will charge a fee to count them. (Ever notice that they don’t charge you to count the ones, fives, tens and twenties you bring in for deposit?) In this economy, you may find yourself prospecting under couch cushions for bus fare or a quart of milk. And since squirreling away spare change is a relatively painless way to build an emergency fund, it’s a shame that some banks and credit unions discourage the practice.

Note: It’s not against the law for banks to refuse to accept that Skippy jar full of tarnished specie. Nor is it illegal for stores to refuse to let you buy a week’s worth of groceries with small coins. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, no federal law exists requiring that “a private business, a person, or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment for goods and/or services.” A business can limit what it will accept (e.g., no bills larger than a $20 — or no pennies.

A spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association once told me why banks deplore large quantities of coins:

  • It takes a lot of room to store them.
  • They’re heavy to transport.
  • Lines may be tied up if tellers have to count large quantities.
  • Coin-counting machines are expensive to buy and maintain.

If your bank or credit union eschews your metal fundage, you could always switch to a new one. Or you could find other ways to make this money work for you.

Change You Can Believe in (Even if the Bank Doesn’t)

The obvious answer is Coinstar, which has more than 19,000 coin-counting machines sucking in specie and spitting out scrip. Not for a strict cash exchange, mind you — why would you willingly pay the 9.8% counting fee (11.9% in Canada)?

But if you take the results in the form of a gift card or e-certificate there’s no fee. The options aren’t limited to Amazon and Starbucks, either. For example, a DIY guy can cash in for a Lowe’s card, and film fans can turn their change into movie-theater cards. Check out the “special offers” tab on the Coinstar home page to see if there’s a particular incentive to cash in.

Note: Coinstar’s machines may not return older coins, including pure silver ones. (On the other hand, it might; I once found a Mercury dime in the returned-coins bin). If you’re helping an elderly person divest of a few decades’ worth of specie, perhaps you shouldn’t be using a machine like this.

Value for Your Dollar

Don’t want to cash in for an e-certificate or pay a counting fee? Then why not:

  • Shop with it. Coins are legal tender, after all. Use them to pay for a newspaper, a pack of gum or any other small purchase. I’m not suggesting you count out enough coins to pay for a new fridge. But surely it’s acceptable to use dimes when buying a can of soup or some bananas. In fact, some small businesses might welcome a couple of bucks’ worth of specie.
Remember: If you pay with exact change, you’ll cut down on the number of coins you bring home.
  • Keep some in the car. Coins in the ashtray or glove compartment can be used for parking, tolls or that quart of milk before payday.
  • Ride the bus. You need exact change for that anyway.
  • Donate it. Maybe you haven’t been able to write as many checks to charities lately. Why not drop an extra handful of coins in the church collection plate, or the donation box at the animal shelter?
  • Give it away. When possible I give dollars to street people. During leaner times I keep some change in my pocket when I’m out and about.
Tip: Use an old prescription medicine bottle to keep large amounts of coins organized in your purse, backpack or briefcase. In the old days you could use a film canister but now most people have gone digital.
  • Gift it. Fill a small bank with small coins for a baby-shower present. Put change in plastic eggs for Easter hunts. Drop pennies in a trick-or-treater’s bag. A gift enjoyed by some of my young relatives was the smallest fishing-lure box I could find, with an item in each compartment: a sticker, a ring, a few coins.

It just occurred to me that I could put a few coins in each compartment and include a note to the child that if she adds up the total and sends it to me in a letter, I would send twice as much that amount back. (Hey, it’s one way of instilling the thank-you note habit early.)

Tip: I’ve seen coin wrappers for sale in office-supply stores. Seriously? Your bank or credit union should give them to you for free.

Value for Your Dimes

Again: Coins are real money. So you could:

    • Add them to the kitty. Does your office have a coffee fund? Drop a buck’s worth of nickels and dimes in along with your one-dollar bills.
    • Carry some for the tip jar. This is especially helpful if you’re using a prepaid card, i.e., it’ll keep you from putting in a dollar bill when you’d prefer to leave 75 cents.
    • Keep them for emergencies. Rolled up, they can become part of your cash cache.
    • Gamble! Propose a friendly snack ‘n’ blackjack evening at your place, with a limit of 10 cents per hand. It’s cheap entertainment during tight times. Worst-case scenario: You wind up with more coins, not fewer. Poor you.
    • Pay your kids. Does your 7-year-old get an allowance? Give some or all of it in change. If you’re a family that requires that saving and giving as well as spending, your child will have to count and divide. Instant math lesson!
    • Torment your kids. Before leaving on a road trip, give each child a $10 roll of quarters. Tell them they spend it on anything he wants when you arrive — but that every time they ask “Are we there yet?” or pester a sibling, you will take a quarter. I wish I’d made this one up, but I didn’t. I read it somewhere. Wonderfully devious. (P.S. You get to spend the quarters on anything you want, too. Or save them for the same tactic on the way home.)
    • Save them for the yard sale. When items are going for a quarter or 50 cents, you’re going to be making a lot of change.
    • Deposit them. If you’re dropping off a check — yes, some of us still go to brick-and-mortar banks and credit unions — include a couple of dollars’ worth of loose coins in the deposit. Is a teller really going to carp at counting 20 dimes? Again: They don’t seem to whine about counting 20 twenties.

I think financial institutions and businesses should be willing to make reasonable accommodations for reasonable customers. After all, other stores and banks/credit unions out there would be glad to get the business of folks whose coins you won’t take.

I am not recommending that you go out of your way to dump $50 worth of nickels and dimes on any single person or business. I don’t do that myself. But I will continue to pay for those bananas with a dozen dimes, or to deposit my paycheck along with $2 worth of nickels or $5 worth of dimes. That’s just how I roll.

J.D.’s note: Kris and I keep several coin jars by the front door. We have one for pennies, one for quarters, and one for everything else. When we need coins, we pull from these jars. In seven years at this house, the jars have never filled up. I’m not sure what we’ll do when that happens.
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