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A penny saved is probably collectible. February 7, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about whether making cents makes sense. Canada has decided to officially retire its penny this month, making Canadian 2013 pennies automatically collectible for small-change enthusiasts like your truly. Next time a clerk hands you a Canadian penny with your change, think twice about complaining!

This once again raises the question of the continuing production of U.S. cents. The cost of the metals (mostly zinc) used to produce today’s pennies have risen above the face value of the penny itself: It now costs 2.41 cents to make each 1-cent coin. (To put this in perspective, consider a gold coin with a face value of $20, now valued for its gold content at between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the market.)

Congress has repeatedly tried to do away with the penny and make the nickel the lowest-value piece of change in circulation. But the uproar raised by coin collectors has so far kept the penny in circulation. As a collector, I’m all for the penny. But as a realist, I can’t imagine that its days aren’t numbered.

Collecting today’s pennies is a bit of an issue, I’ll admit. Even if you find some spanking-new, brilliantly lustered pennies in your pocket or at your bank, I’ve noticed that they quickly develop disfiguring spots, something I’ve never seen on older pennies. Once that happens, all they’re fit for is pocket change. Rats! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to the pennies in collector proof sets. (Mind you, perhaps they’re just responding to the humid air in my apartment and your pennies wouldn’t spot up like mine.)

At any rate, the only modern pennies that will ever have any real monetary value are the “errors,” those that somehow got messed up during the minting process and weren’t caught by the mint before being released. This rarely happens with any coin, which is why collectors love error coins. (Examples would be coins that are struck twice, creating a double image; coins with two fronts or two backs; coins struck off-center; coins with one date superimposed on another; and coins struck on the wrong planchet, the blank metal disk that becomes a coin when struck with the machine dies to stamp the coin. A dime pattern struck on a penny planchet would be an example of this.)

Valuable or not, I find collecting pennies fun, whether they’re the multi-patterned new Lincoln cents, the old “wheat ears” Lincolns, the “silver” war pennies, the classic Indian head pennies, or the 50-cent-sized, heavy old pennies that go clear back to the early days of our Republic, when, as our hero and blog mentor Benjamin Franklin noted, a penny was really worth something. In less-good grades, and with the exception of rarities, they’re affordable for everyone, something that certainly can’t be said about many collectible coins. (And of course, modern pennies are very affordable in the best grades, which means in the most perfect condition.) Not to mention that, every once in awhile, you might still turn up a “wheat ears” penny in pocket change! Try doing that with a silver dime or quarter.

So what’s your view? Keep the penny or kill it? I’d love to hear from you!


Richard Saunders

Penny ante. April 12, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask for your two cents’ worth about the fate of the U.S. cent, informally known as the penny. Canada declared its penny obsolete this past March; in Europe, only the Brits keep them in circulation. Is it time the U.S. sent Abe packing?

As a two-bit coin collector, I love pennies. But even I must admit that making them no longer makes “cents.” That’s because, at this point, the metal in the pennies is worth more than their face value—2.4 cents for every penny, according to Fortune Tech blog contributor Dan Mitchell (“Don’t mess with the penny lobby,” http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/).

And, due to the increasing demand for metals like copper and zinc, that disparity is sure to get higher. I’ve already read about people hoarding pre-1982 pennies for their copper content. (From 1864 to 1982, U.S. pennies were 95% copper; thereafter, they’re 2.5% copper, used as a plating over a zinc core, with 1982’s pennies splitting the difference. The exception is 1943, the year of the zinc-coated steel wartime cent, aka the “silver penny.”) As for the hoarders, I think these folks would be smarter to save nickels (25% nickel, 75% copper) or, say, aluminum foil. But I digress.

Apart from coin collectors like yours truly, the zinc lobby, and the folks who produce those change-to-bills converter machines you see in grocery store entries, is there anybody else out there who’s in favor of saving the penny? I’d like to hear from you either way.


                       Richard Saunders

Can a penny be saved? March 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about dollars and sense. As you all know, one of the best-known sayings of my mentor, the great Ben Franklin, is “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Mind you, back in Dr. Franklin’s day, the humble penny had a lot more marketing oomph than it does now. In a time when people’s yearly earnings might come to less than fifty dollars, a penny was real money. Pennies had physical oomph, too–they were big, shiny copper coins the size and thickness of a half-dollar. A pocket or purse full of pennies would have made a grand old sound.

Pennies haven’t always been memorials to Abraham Lincoln, either. Pre-Lincoln, they proudly displayed portraits of Lady Liberty. Some of the earlier attempts at portraiture on the good lady’s behalf are hysterical–one early penny shows a woman with bulging eyes and hair standing on end, almost as though she could foresee the fate of the penny today. Later versions displayed an Alice-in-Wonderland version, a damsel with decolletage worthy of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, a staid, proper matron, and finally, a housewife of classical Rome. Then the penny took wing.

In 1856, the U.S. Mint did something completely different: They shrunk the penny down to its present size, changed its composition from pure copper to a copper-nickel alloy which turned it a leaden grey, and put a flying eagle on its face rather than a version of Lady Liberty. Unfortunately, the eagle never took flight. By 1859, the famous Indian head penny had been introduced, and it reigned supreme until 1909, when Abraham Lincoln took over. Honest Abe’s is the only penny most of us have ever known, though some might remember the “wheat ears” design that was used on the back of the penny until 1959, when the Lincoln Memorial took its place.

Today, unless you’re a coin collector, tax collector, or marketer, the penny gets no respect. Collecting pennies is a lot of fun, since you can still find the big old pennies, often for less than a piggy bank’s worth of modern pennies, and sometimes with gorgeous rainbow colors over the copper (numismatists, aka serious coin collectors, call this toning). And who doesn’t love the wonderful Indian head pennies, even when they learn that the so-called “Indian” was really designer James Longacre’s daughter in a headdress?

But a penny today won’t buy you a piece of penny candy (25 cents a piece as of this writing). The last use of this venerable coin is to make up the difference in sales tax, which seems never to be an even number, or to enrich advertisers who have well-documented evidence that people who wouldn’t dream of buying an item for $20 will snap it up at “only $19.99!” People drop pennies in parking lots rather than carry them, and nobody picks them up “for luck” these days. In 1982, the penny stopped even pretending to be a copper alloy and became copper-plated zinc. But even this cost-saving measure backfired: It costs more than a penny for the copper that covers it.

So today’s penny is an endangered species. There have been many attempts to have production stopped. It’s my view that unless the U.S. Mint decides to glamorize the penny by changing its design, as they’ve so successfully done in recent years with the state quarters, nickel, and most recently the presidential dollar series, the subject of Ben Franklin’s maxim will fade from public awareness, as may ultimately be the fate of all “hard currency” in the age of plastic.  So far, the only people who have spoken up for the penny are the nation’s coin collectors. So today, I’m asking you to weigh in: Should the penny be saved? And if so, why?