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 343.

    Absolutely, the penny should be chucked asap. This issue came up about 30 or so years ago and my recollection is that it was decided that it would be scrapped but it never seems to have happened. Pennies are a nuisance unless they are very very old and worth a million or more dollars to a collector/seller. Bye bye pennies... please and finally!


  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    We should revamp those old saying like " a penny saved is a penny earned"
    not in today's world. I walk the streets of Toronto and see pennies lying on the ground every day, no one even to bothers picking them up. I say good ridance,I have been saying that for 15 years ago, someone was listening I guess. Now if only our politicians would listen to us don't want to wait 15 more years.

  • 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 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    They did this in Hungary a few years ago, simply scrapping the 1 and 2 Forint coins as their value decreased over the years. Nowadays, prices are still expressed to a 1 Forint resolution but totals when you pay in shops are rounded to the nearest 5 Forints. This means that sometimes the shop wins, sometimes the customer. I can't remember which way they round if the last digit's a 3. System works.


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