What your loose change is really worth

“You’ve got to look for the date,” my grandfather reminded me as we sorted through the loose change in my piggy bank.

I was five years old, and to me, the pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters spread out on the floor in front of me amounted to a pirate’s ransom, representing a lifetime of stooping down to the ground to pick up every dirty, forgotten coin I could get my equally dirty little hands on.

It was 1987, and while I loved to find the shiny, newly-minted coins imprinted with the same year, what I was really looking for were 1982 pennies. I loved that the penny was different from all the other coins; I preferred its tawny color to the lustrous gleam of the silver. And since I was born in 1982, the pennies minted in my birth year were the perfect fit for a precocious child who didn’t quite fit in with the other kids in her neighborhood.

“That’s good,” my grandfather would say when I picked up one of my favorite coins. “Those pennies are worth more than the newer ones.”

I nodded like I understood what he meant, but really, I didn’t have a clue. To me, on the verge of starting kindergarten, all pennies were worth one cent, all nickels worth five, and all dimes worth ten; that was the extent of my financial knowledge in those days.

I’ve always heard that certain older coins were worth more than their face value, but I never knew how much. In fact, I’d actually started to believe the entire concept was something of an urban legend. So, I set out to find out exactly what my loose charge was worth.

It’s Not All About the Benjamins, Baby

While bills aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed – it costs the United States Mint roughly four cents to produce a one dollar bill – coins are a different story. A few years ago, the Mint made headlines for its very public announcement that it cost the government more money to make pennies and nickels than the coins were actually worth.

The thing is, the Treasury Department has gone out of its way over the past 70 years to prevent that from happening. Starting in 1982 – the year I was born – the Mint changed the composition of pennies, switching it from a coin made of up 95 percent copper to one with just 2.5 percent copper (the rest is zinc). That change also altered the value of pennies, since copper is worth more than zinc. It wasn’t the first time the government literally devalued our loose change. In 1965, the Mint removed the silver from two of its coins – dimes and quarters – replacing it with an amalgamation of copper and nickel.

The Value of Pennies

When the government switched the metallurgic composition of pennies in 1982, it effectively devalued it as well. Today, copper sells for $3.30/pound, while zinc goes for a fraction of that – just $0.84/pound. That means:

You can see, pre-1982 pennies not only weigh more than today’s pennies, but they’re also worth more than five times as much. The older pennies’ value is twice as much as their face value. If you’re wondering how to distinguish the “higher value” 1982 pennies from the “lower value” ones, get a good scale; the ones that weigh more are also worth more.

Verdict? True. My grandfather was right to urge me to collect pennies older than I was.

Note: Melt value is different than a coin’s intrinsic value. This value represents what the coin would be worth should it be melted down into metal. It does not take into consideration the rarity of the coin, or any influence that may have on its overall value.

The Value of Nickels

The U.S. Mint changed the composition of the nickel during and then after World War II. In 1942 – with the metal nickel in high demand for military purposes – the government removed nickel coins from circulation, replacing them with coins made from a combination of silver, copper, and manganese. The result was a nickel-less nickel. In the post-war era, the Mint returned the nickel’s namesake to its composition; however, much of the coin’s war-era value was lost:

It’s obvious that today’s nickels don’t come close in value to the World War II era coins. However, it’s worth noting that the melt value of today’s nickel represents 96 percent of its face value.

Verdict? Half-true. I’d always heard that pre-1965 nickels had higher values. This, however, only holds true for World War II nickels, if you’re going by melt value alone.

Note: The first Jefferson nickels, minted from 1938 to 1942, had the same composition as today’s nickels. Even though their melt value is hence the same, these coins are often considered more valuable to collectors because they are more rare; in fact, a simple search on eBay finds these first-generation Jefferson nickels listed for several dollars each.

The Value of Dimes and Quarters

Starting in 1965, the government removed all of the silver from dimes and quarters, essentially making these silver coins silver-less, just as the Mint had done with nickels in the 1940s. In both cases, the Treasury replaced the silver in these coins with additional copper – which is in some ways a paradox, since it later removed copper from pennies because of the high cost.

It’s interesting to note the devaluation of nickel during the post-WWII era, while the value of silver was on the rise. The government didn’t tamper with the composition of the quarter during the war years, allowing the coin to remain mostly silver; at the same time, it took the nickel of out nickels, replacing it with silver. In the post-war years, it removed the silver from quarters (and dimes), replacing it with nickel. Also, I think it’s interesting that today’s quarter costs less to make than a nickel, despite the fact that the latter is worth just one-fifth of the former.

Verdict? True. Pre-1965 dimes and quarters are worth more – substantially more – than coins minted at a later date… just like my grandfather told me.

What’s in Your Wallet?

Emboldened by the information gleaned during my fact-finding mission, I ransacked my daughter’s piggy bank, hoping to find a few “oldie but goodie” coins.

The face value of the coins in my daughter’s piggy bank was $12.81. As I scoured the piles of copper (well, zinc) and silver (well, copper) coins, I found twelve pre-1982 pennies, two pre-1964 dimes, and one 1961 quarter. I removed the higher-value coins from my daughter’s trove in the middle of the night (whoever said it’s like taking candy from a baby has not met my daughter), relocating them to a safer place.

Have you ever collected older coins because of their melt value? Or do you think it’s a waste of time?

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