When I was a kid, I collected coins. I used to put them in one of those blue Whitman cardboard folders, and I had a separate folder for pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollar coins. Since I had a paper route, I had access to a lot of loose change, so I studied each coin I received from Friday’s collections, and searched for the dates I was missing. It took several years, but I was able to fill most of the holes, which were quickly emptied for gas money once I started driving. I still saved my coins, but I wasn’t as specific about where they went, and since it was possible and even common to actually buy things for under a dollar back then, coins were tendered on a regular basis. These days, not so much. I can’t think of too many things that are under a dollar, so for me anyway, I don’t use a lot of coins.
If I’m out in a store and I’m buying socks or coffee or whatever the case may be, I use a credit card. I do this for several reasons. For one, I have never carried much cash and for two, our credit card company willingly gives us money if we spend money, even for something as silly as a cup of coffee. Mrs. G. and I both acknowledge the cash-free age we live in by embracing our plastic overlords, and this works out fine since we are both disciplined enough not to go crazy, and we pay the full amount each month. The bulk of the bill is usually for food, and last month, socks. And coffee.
Having said this, there are times when cash is used and when this happens, I never use coins, even if I have them in my pocket. I’ll simply round up whatever the amount is, hand over paper money, and take back my change. I empty my pockets every night and put whatever coinage I have in a container in my dresser. Every few years, I’ll roll the coins and take them to the bank to exchange for paper bills. It’s a system of saving pin money that has worked for me for at least fifty years, if not more.
A few weeks ago, I was downtown taking pictures and I didn’t have any change on me or in the truck to feed the meter, so I would stop, kamikaze-style, snap a picture of something, and quickly move on. “This is ridiculous,” I said to myself, so when I got home, I took a handful of change and dumped some in each of the four hundred little cubbies that Dodge had thoughtfully molded into every square inch of the interior. Now I had meter money, which didn’t last long since it costs a quarter for twelve minutes. On the plus side, I found something that costs less than a dollar—twelve minutes of on-street city parking.
Last Sunday, we drove out to an art museum in Buffalo, New York, and since I knew we’d be taking the thruway, I grabbed some change, put it in a Ziploc bag, and lobbed it in a cupholder in my wife’s car. I don’t drive on the thruway too often, and since we would only be on it for forty miles or so, I didn’t think the toll would be too much.
As we neared the tollbooth, my wife took the ticket from behind the visor and asked what I thought the toll would be. I guessed fifty cents. I was off by a dollar-fifty. So as one car after the other crept through the tollgate, my wife patiently counted out two dollars in various coins—including pennies. I can honestly say that I haven’t used a penny in decades, but not my wife. She has a coin purse in her wallet and I’ve seen her do this before. She’ll clog up a line for hours counting out the exact change before handing it over to a cashier who is so dulled by a system that doesn’t require math, looks as if she has just been paid with toenail clippings.
“You’re going to have to count faster. We’re next,” I said. I knew I had at least eight quarters and a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin in the Ziploc bag, but did she grab those? No. She used every possible combination of nickels, dimes and pennies to get to two dollars and ladled it all into my right hand. I handed the ticket to the toll taker, transferred the coins to my left hand, and then held my paw out the window. When the toll lady reached out to take the money, at least half of the coins spilled out onto expensive New York State tolled highway. One would have thought a prerequisite for being a toll taker would be to have hands the size of a catcher’s mitt, but she had teeny little Barbie doll hands. Those coins didn’t have a chance.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as I started to open my door. She said it wasn’t a problem, and excused me as she counted dimes out of her tiny hands. I think she was simply trying to move the line along. Truthfully, I have no idea why a live person has to stand there for eight hours collecting money. That has to be a dreadful job. Isn’t there a machine that can do this?
The ride back home should have been another two bucks, but we exited thirty-five cents early and took a detour to a railroad museum. This wasn’t anything I would have made a specific trip to see, but it was more or less on the way home. This was the same logic we used when we stopped at the Jell-O museum years ago, and the train museum was a lot more interesting than one dedicated to artificially flavored gelatin.
When we got back home, I emptied out my pockets, adding back some change I picked up from Tim Horton’s. The rest, if there is any, is still in the car. “When did they change the back of the penny?” I asked. The back now has Captain America’s shield on it. The last time I looked, the Lincoln Memorial was on the reverse side and before that, wheat. I was curious now, so I looked at some other coins to see if they’ve changed. Jefferson is no longer in profile on a nickel, the dime is more or less the same as I remember, the quarter is all over the place, and who’s seen or used a fifty-cent piece since 1980? Our half-baked attempts at making a dollar coin work have all failed miserably, but I did have a few Susan B’s and a Sacagawea. It would seem that we simply aren’t coin people anymore.
Then I thought about it. I use plastic to pay for almost everything, and I’m an old guy. Millennials have probably never seen coins, let alone spent them. There are no pay phones anymore, nobody buys newspapers, vending machines take cards, cashiers take debit cards, credit cards, Apple Pay or Samsung Pay, so that leaves parking meters, Laundromats, tooth fairies, and sleight-of-hand magicians as the only regular users of coins. Not a very broad field.
Still, as the old adage goes, a penny saved is a penny earned, and the jar in my dresser is testament to that idiom. I may or may not spend them, but I have them, and for some odd reason, that makes me feel good.