The US penny: Should it be scrapped?

Graphic showing number of US pennies

Canada has stopped producing the penny coin, deeming it a waste of money. The move has re-ignited a long-running debate in the US over the future of its single cent, and the question is sometimes raised in the UK too. So is it time to ditch the penny?

"No pennies here," reads a large sign with a big red slash through the middle, at the entrance to Shell Lumber, a busy hardware store in Miami, Florida.

A few weeks ago, its owner Andy Haase decided he had had enough.

"Every second counts - we were just wasting money and losing time," he says, referring to the time his staff spent counting pennies cashing up.

All cash purchases are now rounded down to the nearest nickel (5 cents) in favour of the customer. This eats into profits a little, but is more than offset by the time spent in labour counting them, says Haase.

 Jim Turner at KOA campsite in Estes Park, Colorado (l) and the 'No pennies' sign at Shell Lumber in Miami (r) No pennies please: Jim Turner at his campground, and the sign that greets customers to Shell Lumber

It is the same story at the KOA campsite in Estes Park, Colorado, which has been operating a "penniless policy" since 2007.

"This is just a silly coin to have," says owner Jim Turner. "Customers think it's a great idea - no one has ever complained."

It's a "total no-brainer", says Jeff Gore, a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who has spent 10 years lobbying for the US to get rid of the penny, and heads up the group Citizens for Retiring the Penny.

"At least something is happening somewhere," he says, referring to the recent move by the Canadian government, "and that gives us hope".

Start Quote

People gripe and moan about the penny, but they still want to keep it”

End Quote Richard Doty National Museum of American History

In May, Royal Canadian Mint struck its final one-penny piece, sending it off to a museum.

Explaining the move, the Canadian Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, said the one-cent coin had become "a currency without currency", a coin which now has little value, and little use - and a majority of Canadians were behind him.

The financial equation did not add up either. Each penny was costing 1.6 Canadian cents to produce and distribute, meaning a net loss to the government of C$11m ($10.7m, £6.9m) per year.

The case for ditching the US cent appears, on the surface at least, to be even stronger. A penny - as it is commonly known in the US - costs 2.4 cents to produce and distribute. And there were 4.3 billion minted lasted year.

Canada's penny law

  • Goods can still be priced in pennies, and pennies remain legal tender, but no new pennies will be minted, or distributed
  • Shops to round the final price at the till after tax, to the nearest 5 cents
  • Card payments and cheques can still be made to the cent
  • Government encourages people to donate pennies to charity

"Every penny minted represents a loss for tax payers," says Francois Velde, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and co-author of The Big Problem of Small Change.

There are many precedents. The US has abolished a number of coins in the past, including the half cent in 1857. The UK's halfpenny ($0.8 cents) was withdrawn in 1984.

New Zealand and Australia abandoned the one-cent and two-cent coin in the 1990s. (New Zealand later ditched the five-cent coin too.)

"The penny has become a meaningless token, it serves no purpose whatsoever," says Velde.

"Pennies are like counters in a silly game, just to make up a certain number."

Counting the pennies…

Edmond Knowles counting notes in exchange for over 1.3 million pennies in 2005

Edmond Knowles from Flomaton, Alabama collected over 1.3 million pennies, before cashing them in for $13,084.59 in 2005. It is believed to be the biggest cash-in of pennies anywhere in the world.

I saved the pennies, and they just accumulated. I started collecting in 1968, and saved pennies for about 38 years. I owned a service station and I had to keep taking my pennies down to the bank every day - it was inconvenient. So instead, I just put them in a can. It just accumulated until I had five 55-gallon-drums full of them. I kept them in the garage at home.

When I was almost 65 years old, and I had retired, I just thought, "it's time to get rid of them". It took the fellow at the bank a year to find somebody who would count them. It was a Coinstar machine that did it in the end.

They came to my house in an armoured truck and loaded them up. It took four-and-a-half hours. They had two people loading and two armed guards. It was raining and they got stuck in the yard because it was boggy. They had to get a wrecker [recovery vehicle] to pull the truck out the yard.

When I went to the bank and saw the green money on the desk, I was glad to get rid of them. But in a way, I do miss them. I had them for 38 years - there's something gone, you just miss it. The space in my garage has filled up with junk.

It takes a lot of staying with it to save that many pennies. They do have a value - like the old saying "A penny saved is a penny earned."

According to the US General Accounting Office, two-thirds of pennies are out of circulation, with many of them disappearing almost the moment they reach the public.

Billions are stashed away in penny jars or piggy banks, many are lost - some are even thrown away.

But the little penny has some staunch defenders.

Prices would inevitably be rounded up, not down, says Mark Weller of Americans for Common Cents, a pro-penny lobby group.

"It would negatively impact on working families… We're proud to be standing up for the little guy," he says.

"Some may question the value of the penny, but collectively it's very valuable," adds Weller citing a number of examples of charities which have raised millions from pennies.

And polls consistently suggest a majority of the US public is in favour of keeping the coin.

"People gripe and moan about the penny, but they still want to keep it," says Richard Doty, senior curator of the Numismatic Collection at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

For the last four years, the museum has been inviting visitors to vote with a penny on whether they want to keep the one cent or get rid of it.

They used to get their interns to count every penny-vote cast, but stopped when they topped the one million mark, and now just "eyeball it".

Their poll suggests the public is split, around 60/40 in favour of retaining the penny.

"Money has a value way beyond the simple amount it is worth in exchange - it has an almost mythic or religious quality," says Doty.

"People don't want to mess with tradition… They will keep a coin even though it's not worth anything, or makes no sense."

Why is a cent called a penny?

Prior to the Declaration of Independence, there were 13 British colonies in the US. The British penny was used during that period - mostly as a reference point to compare prices. When the first US cents were minted in 1793, the term penny was used, as it was already familiar - and the name stuck, even though its official name is still one cent. In the UK, the plural of penny is pence. In the US, it is pennies.

Since 1909, over 100 years, the US penny has borne the portrait of Abraham Lincoln, the much-respected president who led the country through the civil war. Though Lincoln is also represented on the $5 bill, many object to losing a denomination which honours his memory.

There have been two attempts to get Congress to abolish the penny (in 2002 and 2006), but neither was successful. The penny debate even featured in an episode of the US television series, The West Wing.

In the UK it is less of a political issue, but there are sporadic calls in the media for the coin to go.

One study in the UK suggested that 10% of men admit to getting so annoyed by pennies, they bin them in so-called "penny rage".

Waste of time?

According to Citizens for Retiring the Penny, each person spends around 2.4 hours a year in some penny-related activity - be it fishing around for pennies to pay at the till, waiting in a queue whilst someone else does so, or trying to dispose of them. It estimates the cost to the US economy in "wasted time" at around $10bn (£6.4bn) a year.

"People pick on the penny unnecessarily," says Phil Mussell, director of the UK-based publication Coin News.

He finds talk of getting rid of the penny "slightly irritating", and invokes the "sheer weight of history" as an argument for keeping it.

The first US penny was made in 1793, and the British penny dates back way before this.

"King Offa was the chap who first introduced the penny in 789 AD," says Mussell. "It was the only coin in existence in England for about 500 years… it's our oldest unbroken coin."

He doesn't think abolition will happen. "The British are very proud of their traditions. I do believe the vast majority of people would be up in arms."

Say it with a penny…

A handful of US cents
  • Find a penny, pick it up, and all day you'll have good luck
  • A penny for your thoughts
  • Penny wise and pound foolish
  • Has the penny dropped?
  • Penny-pinching
  • Penny ante
  • Ten a penny
  • To cost a pretty penny
  • Like an old penny
  • To spend a penny
  • In for a penny, in for a pound

"We are probably more likely to see the end of coinage in general, than we are the penny," says Mussell.

The UK penny, and the euro cent for that matter, have one big advantage over the US penny - both cost less than face value to produce.

Most coppers are no longer actually made of copper. As the price of copper rose, mints around the world looked for alternatives.

The UK penny, and euro cent, are made from steel, with a copper-plating.

The US penny is made mostly of zinc - a more expensive metal. In 2010, Congress ordered a review of the composition of small coins, which is due by December at the latest.

They will also no doubt be considering the following conundrum - the nickel (5 cents) also comes in well above face value, at 11.18 cents per coin.

If there were no pennies, more nickels would have to be made - and according to some studies, this would result in an even greater net loss than the status quo.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    Get rid of it not only the cent be discontinued , but do away with the nickel, but in doing so the government should round down to the next dime, not up as I know they will do if the coins be discontinued.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    There is a huge level of ignorance about money. So what if it costs more to make than it's worth?
    Every transaction is worth it's face value. If it has moved 10 times it has allowed transactions worth 10 times it's cost.
    Cash is person to person transaction, only the two; buyer and seller are involved. Cards have to be authorised by a central authority, they can turn it off if they want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Quote: "In the UK, the plural of penny is pence"

    Well ... not really. Pence refers to a value and is singular, like "I only have one sixpence left" or "Ten pence Is almost a shilling". Pennies refers to individual coins like "Pennies from heaven are raining down"

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    How do petrol stations charge 127.7p and 131.9p a litre,when we do not have 1/10 of one penny. A CON, you are really paying 128p &132p . Also when you have put £30 into your tank when you put the nozel back in the pump the price jumps to £30 and 1p.They allways want the extra 1p and do not round it down. You feel like going back to the pump & get your 1p left ih the pipe

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    He has been informed that a UK 2 pence piece which has on the back "New Pence" is worth more as scrap metal than its 2p value.This is because they contained a higher % of copper.MR.TRUCULENT,also says! bring back. Britannia on the 50p, the Lion (how can you call heads or tails, with no lion on the 10p), also the portcullis for the penny, and all the other pre 2008 designs

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    It should not be up to the public to decide whether to keep a coin in circulation or not. The government is supposed to make decisions for logical reasons as well as financial. We did not need coins smaller than a penny when I was a child and with inflation way beyond 10 times, we should stop using the penny and the nickle. Stop the nickle so computers can automatically round to the nearest dime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Our money used to be commodity based. The coppers were worth exactly what they weighed in copper, the pound was exactly one pounds worth of sterling silver. About £270... This tells you how much the face value of the pound and the penny have fallen as the politicians and bankers have debased the currency. Over 99% of the value has been taken.

    If you save your wealth as money, they'll steal it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    Is this the big debate the BBC should concern itself with? The phrase "haven't you got any work to do" comes to mind. Run along then

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    Cost of production is more than the value and work involve in counting is even more expensive.Economy matters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    Great idea, but can UK businesses be trusted to do the rounding down. I doubt it. If they did it would be after adding a small percentage. We already see manufactures and retailers tweaking product weights/volumes to supply less for the same price (eg 1.5Litre packs become 1.4L and 250g become 230g), Rip off Britain cannot be trusted with this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    323, that's true. It can work. Just mean it'd be easier for many (as the case seemed to be here) if you didn't have a second system but went straight over. Otoh, I guess the downside would be having to replace speedometers in cars otherwise. But most here don't want it even though we already do use it in science and other things. I guess there's much worse things to worry about anyway, I suppose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    So long as the single cent remains the smallest unit of currency, then a coin to its value must remain in circulation. Rounding out the price of everything to the nearest 5 cents merely reduces the value of each 5 cent piece to 1 cent and thus further erodes the value of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Not sure about the penny or our one pence. Its the two pence that annoys me, they are so big and how often do you get two pence change? Two ones would do - scrap the two pence to start with or make it smaller. I still remember the half pence - that was a nonsense...

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    I oppose the argument "...rounding costs the little guy", the government could stop producing one cent coins today; thus, alleviating the negative production costs to the tax payer. The impact to "the little guy" is minimal due to the fact the average life expectancy of a coin in circulation is 8 years. With 150 billion in circulation & public hoarding, pennies will be available for a long time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    I would be so glad to never see another penny in my life. If a penny is dropped (pun intended) in my house it either ends up in the vacuum or trash. I don't blame these merchants for banning them from their establishments and I think it's about time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    I like the penny. It's the first coin that little kids learn to save, and as a kid (and as an adult), it's a thrill to find a penny on the ground - free money!

    Sometimes life isn't about being more efficient or more cost-effective. Sometimes it's about maintaining historical connections, tying previous generations to the present one, giving points of comparison. The lowly penny does that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    It's strange the Brits like to cling on to their miles and pints, but have everything else in metric. Also their habit of using Fahrenheit when it's hot, but Celsius when it's cold. That is odd.

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    It is possible. The Brits managed it in 1971, it takes a couple of generations for it to become imbedded in the mind, so you end up with dual weighting, measuring.but the kids grow up bilingual in both using metric at school and imprerial at home, eventually that stops as kids now are probably only comfortable with metric as that's what their parents were taught as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    we Malaysians had ditched them for years now :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    Yes get rid of it. There is more than 1c of copper in a penny, therefore they are not economical to make. And if it's good enough for Canada we should follow. We also were supposed to go to the metric system with Canada but Ronald Reagan decided at the last minute not to. Big mistake. By this time we could have had at least 2 generations totally ensconsed in metric. We still should do it.


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