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Thoughts about a penny

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Esther Cepeda
April 2, 2012
— According to my children, I am the only person in America who wastes her time bending over to pick up a penny.

“It’s not worth it,” they say, and gosh I hate it when they’re right about nostalgia-related issues. Did you know that if you stop to pick up a penny and it takes you more than 6.15 seconds, the action pays less than the federal minimum wage? And this estimate, given by a metallurgist to The New Yorker back in 2008, is probably out of date by now.


Indeed, my sons, ages 11 and 13, have lived in a world where a large gumball costs 50 cents. Once, when I had the great excuse of not having any coins with which to crank out a meager handful of M&M’s, one of them asserted that it bordered on criminal that candy-dispensing machines didn’t accept credit cards because “who carries around exact change?”


Not me.


I grew up in a time when “penny candy” still existed—I’m not old enough to remember when you could get more than one piece per cent, but the term still meant something at my corner store—but I rarely carry change.


Finding a penny on the street feels like a blessing, like the universe’s sign of abundance. It may not buy anything by itself but, helloooo, it’s money. Legal tender. It’s got Lincoln’s face on it and is worth 1/100th of a buck.


Still, our neighbors to the North have got the right idea.


Last week, Jim Flaherty, Canada’s finance minister, announced the end of the Canadian penny, a coin that costs about 1.6 cents to produce. He estimated that in addition to sparing citizens the time it takes to tidy up their penny-littered dressers, it would also save the government 11 million Canadian dollars per year—not exactly chump change.


Back here, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner recently proposed changing the makeup of pennies and nickels, which cost 2.4 cents and 11.2 cents each to produce, in addition to other improved efficiencies in currency production, to save $75 million in the next fiscal year.


Nice try, but no cigar. We just don’t need pennies anymore. Go down to any college campus and you’ll find that nearly every vending machine accepts debit and credit card payments even for snacks that cost less than a dollar. Back in 2009, the Salvation Army rolled out card-swipeable red kettle stands and last Christmas started taking kettle donations by way of mobile devices.


Usually, I despise the idea of “getting with the times” just for the sake of patting ourselves on the back and boasting about the “digital age.” But if Canada can learn to round its transactions to the nearest nickel, by golly so can we.


You could scoff that the dollars we’d save by getting rid of our penny would be but drops in the bucket of our horrible budget crisis—and you’d be right. But if nothing else, it would save the sanity of adults who can’t bear to live in a world where children walk past actual money because it’s too worthless for their time.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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