Archive for Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Slowly but surely, pennies bring about small change

August 29, 2006


Another milestone in our young marriage last week: My wife combined our loose change - one jar for the silver stuff, one jar for the pennies.

The penny jar is the larger of the two, and it has been serving me for more than a decade. I know from hard experience that it can hold about $10 of change, and that it takes a couple of years to amass that much copper.

That's not a lot of money, but sometimes it can be a life saver.

My first job out of college didn't pay a whole lot. I had enough money to make rent and a car payment - and not a whole lot else. I ate a lot of ramen in those days, making it heartier by adding frozen peas and corn. During the evenings, I'd walk to the library and read, leaving my apartment dark in a desperate attempt to keep the electricity bill down.

Ah. Those were the days.

It was during this period that one of my best friends from college called me up: He was coming through town and wanted to know if we could meet and go out for a meal.

Sure, I said. Then I panicked.

I was flat broke. I didn't even have enough money in my pocket or in the bank to go out and buy a hamburger. And I didn't want to have to humble myself before my friend by making such an admission. I was desperate.

Then I looked at my desk, at the jar where I'd been keeping pennies for four years. It had recently filled up. I knew what I had to do.

So I took my jar down to the bank. Then I spent the next hour sitting at a desk with a pretty young teller, who joined me to count the pennies and put them in paper rolls. I was utterly humiliated by the exercise, and if I'd ever harbored dreams of asking the teller out, they disappeared right then.

But like I said: About $10. It was enough to let me buy a burger, save face with my friend - and, oh yeah, buy a couple of gallons of gas for the car.

I've been thinking about that story lately, as a debate gathers steam to actually abolish the penny from U.S. currency. Hardly anybody uses the 1-cent piece anymore, officials say - nobody picks them up from the sidewalk, and some people even throw them away. (I've seen a friend do this several times; it always astonishes me.)

I look at my jar of pennies and have to acknowledge this: If a single cent were all that useful, they wouldn't pile up unused.

But a lot of pennies put together - well, that's a different story.


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