Change Is Coming

Ron Wayne

WHETHER FOR GOOD luck or because I’m thrifty, I still stoop down to pick up pennies. But there might not be any in the future.

Thanks to their copper content, pennies now cost twice as much to produce as they’re worth—and skyrocketing inflation is only exacerbating the problem. There are even rumors that the government will stop producing pennies, but so far the U.S. Mint has made no such announcement.

Instead of using my debit card for groceries, gas and so on, I’ll occasionally do an all-cash budget for a week. Spending seems less abstract when you’re pulling dollars from your wallet and coins from your pocket. For example, if I’m paying cash, I’ll pause before buying that extra snack from Trader Joe’s.

My millennial children can identify a penny, but I don’t think they pay for much of anything with cash. My son, who favors his American Express card, touts the credit card rewards he gets for his purchases. Debit cards are my usual method. They’re a vast improvement on checks. I write just one check a month, to my condo’s homeowners’ association.

According to a 2021 analysis, debit cards are used for 67% of card payments. Four out of five consumers prefer to use debit or credit cards for purchases. Only 10% use cash for all their spending, but 88% of consumers use cash at least sometimes. That’s not surprising: Some places won’t allow card use for very small purchases.

At some point, coins and paper currency are likely to become unneeded and irrelevant, and pennies might be the first to go. But without pennies, future generations will never understand expressions such as “penny wise and pound foolish” or “a penny for your thoughts.” Will they forget one of our greatest presidents if they don’t see his profile on a shiny coin? He’ll still be on the $5 bill, of course. But how long will paper currency be around?

Seeing Lincoln, Washington or Hamilton on our currency is a subtle reminder of how much we revere these leaders and how important they were in making our country great. The symbolism reaches much further into our society than a monument some will never see. It’s sad to think that eventually we’ll have just sterile transactions with plastic cards or with our cellphones.

I can’t say I think about Lincoln every time I pick up a penny or get change, but I am reminded of the respect we have for him and others when I use actual money. Shifting to a cashless society may be inevitable, but I won’t stop picking up those lost and neglected copper coins. Who knows, maybe they do bring good luck?

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