A penny saved is a penny earned.

Benjamin Franklin

I emptied the coins onto the kitchen table and began to sort through them looking for “Wheaties” and unusual coins. It is an old ritual, and I can’t remember not doing it — usually around the first of the year.

We had several coin caches, one an exotic wooden bowl on the dresser, one a hand-made ceramic bowl near the front door and one in the console of each of our cars. Drive-through change went into the auto compartments and occasionally became fodder for parking meters. The extra change in my pockets and my wife’s purse went into the other caches, depending on our whim.

It takes about a year for all to fill up enough to need emptying. Then I gather the coins to take to the bank. But first, I have to look through them for that million-dollar penny or nickel or maybe just something cool. Over the years I’ve found a few silver dimes, a few buffalo nickels and a fair number of foreign coins (Mexican and Canadian, mostly), but the real treasures are the Wheaties.

Wheaties are pennies (Lincoln cents) that were minted from 1909 to 1958, showing two stalks of wheat on the back side. I suppose my attraction to the Wheaties comes from something that I knew in my youth that has now gone away. As a kid, pennies were worth having and every kid I knew had a jar full of (mostly) pennies gleaned from various sources to supplement their allowance, if you got one. You could buy “penny candy” for just a penny, and get more than an opinion for your two cents’ worth from a gumball machine.

But by the ’60’s the new pennies showing the Lincoln Memorial were in circulation and we saw fewer and fewer of the old ones. Up to then, most things that changed in my life were additions, not replacements. We got TVs, transistor radios, new toys (like Slinky’s), none of which existed before. However, replacing the penny – something that was mine – was a new concept. You took away something from me and replaced it with a coin that didn’t feel real or right. The new penny was shiny (real pennies were always dull), seemed lighter (didn’t have the same feel or jingle as real pennies), and no one had ever asked me if it was okay to make the switch. So, somehow my sense of the world’s fairness was diminished.

Nowadays, pennies are pretty-much worthless. With checks and debit and credit cards, the amount is still captured electronically, but most retail places keep a penny jar on the counter to avoid the pain of counting pennies in change. Indeed, coins may become obsolete as people and businesses switch from hard cash. (I’m one of the few that still writes checks at the grocery store, in spite of the impatience shown by some people behind me in line.)

Quite a few years ago I had this great idea for a Christmas gift for my brother. I was familiar with the Mexican coins, being originally from Texas, and I planned to buy a bunch of Mexican coins of different denominations and sizes to create a unique set of poker chips. The coins had this great feel and felt like real money (which they were!) unlike the plastic chips we used. The exchange rate was good and I could get a whole poker set of coins for about twenty bucks.

So, on our next vacation to Mexico we waited in line at the bank with about thirty locals cashing their paychecks. The process was very slow and we waited in line patiently (mostly) amid the stares of the working class locals. We finally got up to the counter and explained that we wanted so many peso coins, so many centavo coins, and so on — which caused a fair amount of confusion, not to mention a great deal of interest among our fellow customers. Finally, the clerk went back to consult with the manager, who verified what we wanted. The clerk came back and wrapped up our request. Back at the hotel, we opened the heavy package and looked at our haul in amazement. Apparently, the currency of Mexico had recently changed. We were the proud owners of piles of new coins, all roughly the same size and color, and not that different from US coins. (The best laid plans of mice and men …)

In spite of my continuing interest in finding Wheaties, I’m not a big fan of the penny. Few people will pick one up off the floor or street (as I do — aren’t they lucky?), and they seem to be unneeded in commerce. I’ve heard that pennies were once considered the poor man’s money, and had a particular resonance with blacks from the South due to Lincoln’s association with them.

The cost of making a penny has come down recently from around 2.4 cents to 1.7 cents. Since there are roughly 13 billion pennies minted per year, it’s an extra cost of around $900 million each year. That’s a lot of Happy Meals.

The estimated 2 to 2.5 billion pennies currently in circulation would translate into a lot of metal if recycled, but like me, many people have their caches of coin that are not actually circulated. I do annually turn most of mine in, however, and only keep the special ones that catch my eye. Those go into a coffee can in the closet with the Wheaties and other interesting and foreign coins, including the twenty dollars’ worth of new Mexican coins that don’t work as poker chips.

I know that someday after I’m gone, my son will find the can, and know that his prosperity is assured. Or maybe it’ll just make a quirky doorstop.

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