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Pennies: The Throwaway Coins We Can’t Let Go Of : Money: Shopkeepers shrug them off, while consumers collect them in jars and piggy banks. But Americans want the little fellas to stay in circulation.

From Reuters

A dollar isn’t what it used to be, and to many Americans, a penny is close to trash.

It may have inspired the folk wisdom that “A penny saved is a penny earned,” but the coin, now made of zinc with a copper coating, is tossed away like a candy or cigarette wrappers at newsstands and food stores.

Many shops throughout the country keep cups of pennies by registers with hand-scrawled signs encouraging customers to drop in extras or pick out what they need to pay a bill.

Some don’t even bother with cups, simply rounding up or down and giving away or charging customers the extra penny, two, three or four.

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“The place next door must be losing money,” one Washington office worker said of a convenience store where he shops. “If the bill is $4.61, they tell you to keep the penny. But if your change is $4.61, they give it to you to the penny exactly.”

Several large supermarket chains encourage customers to round up their bills to the next dollar and donate the coins to charity.

Many Americans, by the tens of millions certainly, accumulate pennies at home in jars, piggy banks or cans. What they are used for is anybody’s guess.

Some have come up with more creative solutions to how to best use the lowly coinage.

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“I recently tiled my bathroom with pennies,” one American told the USA Today newspaper. “I put down 12,000 pennies for a cost of $120. It was the cheapest alternative to tiling or putting down carpeting or any other floor surface.”

According to a poll conducted at Walt Disney World, the average American stores $9.93 in pennies at home.

Maybe that explains why billions of pennies disappear each year from circulation and must be replaced by the government. About 12.1 billion pennies were manufactured last year and another 12 billion to 13 billion will be made this year, according to the U.S. Mint.

The Mint says the service life of pennies is much longer than the two to three decades for nickels, dimes and other U.S. coins since so many pennies do not circulate, according to U.S. Mint spokesman Michael White.

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“We don’t know how many pennies are in piggy banks,” White said.

But in poll after poll, Americans say they want to keep the penny and condemn any suggestion the penny be eliminated. The last time a congressional bill was proposed to legally allow rounding of bills to the nearest nickel was five years ago.

“It makes sense to get rid of the penny from a change standpoint,” said Thomas Howard, associate professor of finance at the University of Denver. Retailing transactions could, in fact, be made more efficient if the coin were abolished, and coin handling might be more convenient.

Maybe so, but scores of Americans worry that doing away with the penny or rounding up bills would cost them money and cause price inflation.

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“Demand for the penny remains high, and the public is skeptical about the effects, particularly on the poor, of rounding retail transactions to the nearest five cents,” the General Accounting Office said in a report.

Then, too, the penny is good for government revenues.

“The penny revenue is very important to states for sales taxes,” White said. “When it’s on everybody’s bill that adds up to a lot of money.”

As for the U.S. government, it does not mind making and distributing pennies, since the business is profitable. Each penny, according to White, costs 0.8 cents to make but yields a full penny in value.

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That difference, known as “seigniorage” (pronounced SEEN-your-age), amounted to $24 million in fiscal 1993 for the federal government.

“That’s not cash,” White said. “It goes against interest on the national debt.”

And some Americans pick up the discarded pennies and value them for more than their meager purchasing power.

“My parents started me saving pennies when I was a youngster, a habit that has stayed with me,” Scott Alexander of Dansville, N.Y., told USA Today.

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“Believe it or not, I was able to help pay for a major portion of my college education--2 1/2 years at Ithaca College and 2 1/2 years at SUNY-Cortland--by saving pennies. I plan to teach my children this valuable lesson when the time comes, and I hope pennies are still around.”


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