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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Steve
Steve
8 years ago

Isn’t it illegal to melt down coins? Or is that a myth?

Either way, it doesn’t seem like a very good use of one’s time, unless you just enjoy looking through piles of coins. I guess it’s a similar hobby to jigsaw puzzles.

Corey
Corey
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve

I agree here. Melting coins is illegal, so basically, it boils down to a waste of time, unless one is collecting pennies (And, coins as a whole). You might stumble onto a high value coin, or try selling the coins off for their melt value.

But, melting them is illegal.

Adam
Adam
8 years ago
Reply to  Corey

Eye opening article! I did a little research on the legality of melting down coins and I saw that this article from USA today: http://www.usatoday.com/money/2006-12-14-melting-ban-usat_x.htm

if you’re interested take a look.

Audrey
Audrey
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam

Well, at least according to your article, the banning of melting coins was after my high school science teacher demonstrated to us that pennies were in fact no longer copper. I had the melted zinc for a long time after that simply because it cooled in an interesting pattern.

mbhunter
mbhunter
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve

It is illegal to melt pennies and nickels. It is no longer illegal to melt silver dimes, though it was during parts of the 1960s.

Emily
Emily
8 years ago

This is by far my favorite of the audition writers! Ms. Falwell, you are a nerd after my own heart.

Elizabeth Falwell
Elizabeth Falwell
8 years ago
Reply to  Emily

Thank you so much for your kind words, Emily! As a former history major, I love finding those interesting tidbits and incorporating them into my work!

Emily
Emily
8 years ago

I majored in history too. Coincidence? I think not.

Eryn
Eryn
6 years ago
Reply to  Emily

This was a great read! Came across it because I have been looking at dates on my coins all night, so figured I would google how to know what has value…anyways sorry to butt in like this, but I love your wit and am currently majoring in history…so hey Ladies ๐Ÿ™‚

Grad Student
Grad Student
8 years ago

I have a few of the old quarters, I love the clinking sound that they make and hang onto them.

.. but as far as melting them goes, isn’t that a federal offense?

Xenocles
Xenocles
8 years ago
Reply to  Grad Student

You don’t have to melt silver coins (pre-1965). Precious metal dealers buy and sell them routinely, and the prices are pegged to the spot price of commodity silver (with a discount or markup added in).

Zach
Zach
8 years ago

I don’t think this story will help me on my path to financial freedom, but I enjoyed reading it! I will certainly take a closer look at my coins from now on ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for doing all this research!

I guess I should ask – if I were to amass enough “old” coins… can you actually sell them for their melt value? ๐Ÿ˜›

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

Femme frugality had an interesting post about coins the other day.

http://femmefrugality.blogspot.com/2012/06/how-to-tredecuple-your-coinage.html

femmefrugality
femmefrugality
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Thanks for the mention! I vote for Elizabeth. She told the story beautifully. I hope you’re able to either take those coins to a dealer and get what they’re worth or share the tradition of coin examination with the next generation! ๐Ÿ™‚

Andy Hough
Andy Hough
8 years ago

It is illegal to melt down coins but if the U.S. discontinues the penny and nickel then presumably the restriction on melting them down would be lifted. You can sell your pre-1982 pennies for more than face value right now. A $100 of copper pennies goes for about $160 on eBay.

Elizabeth Falwell
Elizabeth Falwell
8 years ago
Reply to  Andy Hough

Andy, that’s a great point; yes, you’d think that if the government stops minting those coins, that the melt ban would be lifted.

Lance@MoneyLife&More
8 years ago

I knew that pre 65 was worth more but didn’t know the details. I will definitely be looking at all of the quarters and dimes I get now. Thanks for the heads up.

Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
8 years ago

Michael Lewis’ new book, Boomerang, starts off with Kyle Bass, a hedge fund manager who made a fortune shorting subprime. He recently bought $20 million in nickels, as the metal in each nickel is worth 6.8 cents.

When our debtors realize we can’t pay back $16 trillion, people will start to use metals as currency again.

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/some-words-advice-kyle-bass

Evan
Evan
8 years ago

Great point, but unfortunately you are barking up the wrong tree. The people here just don’t get it.

That said, one of my favorite anecdotes is on the price of gas. In the ’60s, you could buy a gallon of gas for a few dimes. Those same dimes will buy you a gallon of gas today.

Matt
Matt
8 years ago

Well, according to the U.S. Mint it’s not legal to melt your pennies and nickels down (http://www.usmint.gov/pressroom/index.cfm?action=press_release&ID=771).

Whatever fraction of me is a numismatist cringes a little at the thought anyway… wouldn’t it be more useful to see how much your old coins are worth to collectors?

RJB
RJB
8 years ago

I almost hesitate to complicate things by bringing up the numismatic aspects of this, but there are a few things I should point out. First, there’s an adage that “bad money drives out good money.” In other words, when people realized in 1965 that silver coins were being replaced by copper/nickel ones, the vast majority of silver coins disappeared in a remarkably short period of time. People hoarded them. And sure enough, in the 1980s, when the price of silver went sky-high, most of them were exchanged for cash. Even today, you can take any pre-1965 dime, quarter or half-dollar… Read more »

Elizabeth Falwell
Elizabeth Falwell
8 years ago
Reply to  RJB

Thanks for the insight on coin collecting, RJB! I think that would be inspiration for another post!

SA
SA
8 years ago

I appreciate this relatively offbeat choice of topic. I’ve read many personal finance blogs over the years and this article as well as the intelligent comments following it are refreshing to read.

Jon
Jon
8 years ago

Cool article and cool idea… I will have to keep my eyes open for these older coins! Thanks also to RJB for a great comment.

krantcents
krantcents
8 years ago

I have my father’s Indian Head penny collection. I am holding on to it fo rthe near future.

Stacy
Stacy
8 years ago
Reply to  krantcents

We have a large bag of wheat pennies mostly from my grandmother. At one point my mom took them to be appraised and the dealer offered her a (very low) lump amount for all of them. He did tell her the dates that would be worth more, but she found her eyes are no longer sharp enough to read the dates on the coins! ๐Ÿ™

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

Interesting! I’ve been reading David Wolman’s The End of Money and that’s got me thinking about the cost of money. It isn’t just the cost of the materials, it’s production, distribution, security, etc. His argument about how we’re moving towards a cashless society is interesting.

If anyone’s interested, here’s a talk he gave last week. Doesn’t go into much detail, but it’s an interesting tease: http://www.ideacityonline.com/talks/david-wolman-at-ideacity-2012/

Kristen
Kristen
8 years ago

I liked this post. Well researched, tied into a little bit of personal experience, and I learned something new today.

Meaghan
Meaghan
8 years ago

Did you pay back your daughter’s 57 cents?

Elizabeth Falwell
Elizabeth Falwell
8 years ago
Reply to  Meaghan

Meaghan, I hadn’t – until I saw your comment! Now I’m about to go stuff some of my loose change in her piggy bank to replace it.

Vik
Vik
8 years ago

The only problem with this article is that it doesn’t give any ideas how to proceed IF you DO want to sell some coins at melt-value.

Nihongo Dame Desu
Nihongo Dame Desu
8 years ago
Reply to  Vik

This is where I’m at as well. If this were a coin collecting blog or a history blog, this article would be great. But since it didn’t offer the layperson any way to actually convert that penny into $.05, it was useless. If I root through my change and pull out the older coins, instead of having 1 jar with $54.28, I now have one with $53.60 and another with $.68. What good does that possibly do me? If this was just a human interest piece and not a financial piece, it would be fine. But it seemed to want… Read more »

Andy Hough
Andy Hough
8 years ago

You can sell the coins on eBay. A $100 of copper pennies goes for about $160.

Xenocles
Xenocles
8 years ago
Reply to  Andy Hough

That’s 10,000 pennies (68.5 pounds of change). Rooting through change takes time, and saving it takes effort and space. I question whether the $60 difference is worth the time and effort required to amass that much metal.

Panda
Panda
8 years ago

I’m not into coin-collecting and won’t be, but I loved this article. Really nice to read something fresh and different and I thought this article was much stronger than the other audition pieces so far.

J Burne
J Burne
8 years ago

I just recently unearthed the coin collection of my youth, accumulated during the 1970’s. After buying a new Red Book, and talking to the local coin shop, and perusing eBay, I find that overall it’s worth little more than face value (and has certainly lagged inflation). While I could shuck out some individual melt-value coins and eBay them for a couple of dollars each, it’s just not worth the hassle. My work and family time are much more valuable than that. I enjoyed collecting coins as a kid with my Dad and Grandad. And that is what collecting should be… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

I like this post even though I don’t really care about coin collecting just because it’s different and it uses real numbers. If it was me I would have included even more math (like ROI on time taken to sort through change), but I still tho it was a fun post.

Elizabeth Falwell
Elizabeth Falwell
8 years ago

Tyler, I would have loved to have included more math! Let’s see, ROI? Well, it took me about an hour to sort through my daughter’s piggy bank – and I have to admit, I get paid more hourly than $9.51… so maybe the return on investment wasn’t ideal ๐Ÿ™‚

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago

I really enjoyed this article! I would like to see a follow up for those that would be interested in finding out how they could sell their coins to melt, if possible, and figuring out if that would be more cost effective than selling them to a collector. (For example – if the coin isn’t in great shape, perhaps better to sell to melt instead of to a collector? Very refreshing different sort of article. I think a good personal finance blog should have these types of posts every now and then, because it does educate about different things and… Read more »

Michael
Michael
8 years ago

I agree with a previous commenter. This article does not help me in my path to financial freedom. After reading the past few audition articles, I’m concerned that the blog is heading in the wrong direction. If the current style of articles remains and these new writers write for special interest sections, then no problem. Otherwise you just might lose me as a reader.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago

I don’t do this and the article wasn’t all that interesting to me but I give a thumbs up to this writer!!! Thank you for a well researched piece on ONE specific topic. Way better than some of the boring random general writing we’ve been reading lately!

too bad this wasn’t posted Saturday or something since some people won’t read and comment on this making it look like no one likes your writing!

Sam
Sam
8 years ago

Sorry to be pedantic, but regarding the Lincoln Penny the old one is not ‘worth more than 5 times as much’, only 4.4x as much.

I hope this is taken as a measure of how carefully I read a good article rather than critisism!

Katrina
Katrina
8 years ago

I’ve never commented here before, but I’ve been reading through all of the audition pieces and felt compelled to say that this is my favorite so far. The topic itself of coin collecting holds very little interest for me, but I still enjoyed this piece immensely.

I learned something new, the piece was well researched and used actual numbers to back up the points being made (something I find great value in especially in a finance blog), and the writing style struck a perfect balance between personal and informative.

Elizabeth Falwell gets my vote for new writer!

Stacy
Stacy
8 years ago
Reply to  Katrina

Seconded! This and El Nerdo’s piece have been my favorites so far.
I collected stamps as a kid so coins are closely related. I thought this was a fascinating and well-researched article. I’m interested to see what else this author comes up with (since they apparently get 2 audition pieces). I’m hoping something with more practical application.

smirktastic
smirktastic
8 years ago

We don’t collect older coins, but DH buys a mint proof set annually, which to me is a gigantic waste of money.

Evangeline
Evangeline
8 years ago

The article is well written and reminds us that not all financial aspects are not drudgery.I have many memories of sorting and counting coins with my father. Years after he passed away I decided to see what exactly was in that little box. I chose some to keep for various reasons (sentimental, really old, etc) and with some research sold some for about $3000. Not all were beautiful; there were some that I’m sure were purchased for scrapping purposes. It certainly isnt’ for everyone but it didn’t really take a lot of time and it was kind of fun turning… Read more »

gerald
gerald
8 years ago

BORING! plus copycat from an article from the Simple Dollar, not even a month old…

http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2012/06/06/the-simple-dollar-weekly-roundup-old-quarters-edition/

Elizabeth Falwell
Elizabeth Falwell
8 years ago
Reply to  gerald

Gerald, I can assure you the article was not ripped from another source. I’m a trained journalist (6 years as a TV news producer), and am well aware of the dangers of playing copycat.

Crystal
Crystal
8 years ago
Reply to  gerald

So mentioning old coins can be worth something for metal value is the same as a huge breakdown? I think not…

gerald
gerald
8 years ago

a little too close to your own website’s article too!
https://www.getrichslowly.org/dollar-coins-or-in-other-words-a-new-tax/

Matt
Matt
8 years ago

Thumbs down on this article. Not only is the author implying that something borderline illegal be done (melting down coins) but the sheer amount of effort required to implement this on a large scale is absurd.

If you want to discuss coin collecting as a hobby (or even an alternative investment) there are definitely some merits. However, having the melt value be such a prominent part of this article is disenginuous.

Ferkingbeal
Ferkingbeal
8 years ago

I used to “help” my Dad with his coin collection as a kid. Back then, we looked for rare coins that held value because they were hard to come by. I enjoyed looking at coin value from a completely different perspective!

Vanessa
Vanessa
8 years ago

Interesting and fun article!

Ursula
Ursula
8 years ago

I thought this was a great read! My husband is a coin collector and it’s nice to get a creative look as to why. I enjoyed the personal feel to this artical as well. When it comes to reading about money I get bored pretty quick. This artical kept me interested all the way through.

Crystal
Crystal
8 years ago

Great post! My husband and I just looked through our coin pile for some nice, high silver quarters, but no luck. ๐Ÿ™‚

ktf
ktf
8 years ago

Great article, I love picking up loose change for my daughters piggy bank. I do it less for the money and more for the smile it puts on her face. Either way it makes me feel rich to pick up free money.

Jeff
Jeff
8 years ago

Thanks for all of the fun facts! Sometimes we don’t really know the value of money after all! Hope to see more from you.

Dave
Dave
8 years ago

Very interesting… not sure I would spend the time hunting for the coins for their melt value. Doesn’t seem very efficient.

Heather
Heather
8 years ago

Interesting article! I have several family members collect coins and I have always wondered what the value in that is. This was even more interesting looking at money in circulation.

As far as the author, after reading the comments, I think she hit on the sweet spot of being a good writer: interested readers, engaged commenters, and illiciting both positive and negative response (a little good controversy or disagreement will drive comments and readership!) I say, kudos!

Amy
Amy
8 years ago

Interesting! I still wont be raiding the piggy bank, but will save my collection from when I was small. I wonder, are there any legal issues with melting down currency?

Donna
Donna
8 years ago

This post was well researched, stayed on topic, and provided necessary information to be persuasive. I, nonetheless, do not see where it could help me “get rich slowly” by melting coins. But, on the other hand, has shown me that it would be a good idea to separate my coins into pile of “worth and worthless”. This piece would appeal more on a social interest blog rather than financial one; however, the occasional piece like this one could be attractive from time to time so as not to have the blog be so “nerdy”. Overall, the author did a great… Read more »

Kat
Kat
8 years ago

Very interesting! And I want to know if you paid your daughter back, too!

Gretchen W.
Gretchen W.
8 years ago

Thanks EL! I used to collect coins when I was little – I think you’ve got me inspired to start again ๐Ÿ™‚

xo-G

Tom Falke
Tom Falke
8 years ago

Very interesting observations!

Judy
Judy
8 years ago

Very good article. I always saved old coins but never thought about the value of the metal. I will keep my eyes more open from now on.

Debbie
Debbie
8 years ago

Great article. I always wondered the logic in coin collecting. I knew that the composition of coins had changed over the years, but never why.

Good author.

Melisa Vojtko
Melisa Vojtko
8 years ago

I think this is a great article. What great information. Thank you so much for sharing. It makes me look at dates of my money. Melting down coins isn’t in my future, but they may be the ones I “keep” If I ever get some of the older ones ๐Ÿ™‚ Very interesting guest writer. Thanks for sharing her work with us!

Afif
Afif
8 years ago

What a great way to turn Collecting common coins into a treasure hunt! Thanks for making an easy to follow guide and sprinkling in the historical nuggets.

steve
steve
8 years ago

I check my change religiously. I have separate jars for “New” pennies and pre 82. I don’t bother with weighing the 82s. That’s interesting you found that much silver in your daughters bank. I find it rare to still find silver in change.

stellamarina
stellamarina
8 years ago

Interesting article although I think more info on where to take the coins to get your money would have helped. Just want to mention that my husband finds lots of coins at the beach with his metal detector and this is a good way to aquire a coin collection…..exercise on the beach instead of spending. The gold rings he finds will give extra money in our retirement. In fact those who have enjoyed this different subject on money may also enjoy an article written by a treasure hunter/metal detector user…..and what about gold digging? There are lots of more unusual… Read more »

Julie L
Julie L
8 years ago

This is a great article! It would be interesting to compare how our coins compare with those from other countries – when I was little I was obsessed with collecting coins from everywhere I (or anyone I knew) went.

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