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Jack Smith

To coin a phase, it's a wrap when the jar runneth over, but never stoop to fill it

February 13, 1986|JACK SMITH

I am not alone in resenting prices that top off at 99 cents, but I had no idea that the practice of saving pennies in a glass jar could arouse such passions, one way or the other.

"How absolutely revolting your Sunday column was," writes an anonymous reader. "The government is spending thousands--millions--of dollars to supply a necessary monetary coin in our economy and you are hoarding them. I'll admit there are many more like you and that is the trouble. When you hoard , the government has to replenish."

Ordinarily I don't quote anonymous letters, but I think this point of view deserves a hearing.

Its author points out that when I have a $5.96 luncheon bill I can give the cashier $6 and 1 cent, and she simply gives me back a nickel; or I can give her $10 and 1 cent, and she gives me back $4 and a nickel.

That sounds correct; but of course I don't usually have a penny, since they're home in a jar. I have to give the cashier $6, and she gives me four pennies to add to my jar.

I realize that this sounds disrespectful of the monetary system, but I believe that in the long run it works out. When the jar is full, I give the pennies to my grandchildren, along with a bunch of paper wrappers from the bank, and they roll them into cylinders of 50 each. I believe the last time we had a penny roll they realized more than $14, which of course they took to the bank. I have an idea that those pennies, and the dollar bills they exchanged them for, soon made their way back into the economy.

Marion Tompkins of Reseda is also critical of my attitude toward pennies.

"You seem to resent these coins," she writes, "and possibly feel they are a real nuisance. A penny to me is an old friend and I accept them with pleasure."

Like me, Mrs. Tompkins was a child of the Depression, and she remembers that finding a stray penny on the sidewalk was a rare treat. It would buy a piece of candy. Also pennies paid her bus fare to the library when her husband was making $35 a week.

Mrs. Tompkins still has a jar of pennies. It's the one she used to keep her children's bus fare and lunch money in. "It has been a long time since I had to pay my children's lunch and bus fare, but I still keep that jar of pennies."

Almost every time she goes out walking, she finds a penny or two. She picks them up and puts them in her jar.

"It is obvious," she notes, "that if most people drop a penny they won't bother bending over to pick it up. The schoolchildren have loose coins in their pockets, and if they drop a penny, it means nothing to them. But it still means 1 cent to me."

I'm afraid Mrs. Tompkins' respect for pennies is mostly nostalgic, as she evidently knows. It's true, I suspect, that most people won't bend over these days to pick up a penny. It isn't worth the effort. It's somehow sad, though, to learn that even children won't.

To tell the truth, I will almost never stoop to pick up a penny myself. Yet it hurts me to walk by and leave one lying on the sidewalk. A penny, after all, is a token of our democracy; a building block, however infinitesimal, of our economy. Somehow it seems unpatriotic to pass one by.

But a penny ignored is not the whole measure of my disaffection. I find myself more and more reluctant to bend over to pick up nickels, dimes, and even quarters. When I see such a coin at my foot I consider its buying power against the energy I will expend in bending over, and the probable pain, and I leave it for someone else.

Is there a more telling test of what inflation has done to us?

Business would go on if stores didn't set prices in odd cents. Edward Broll of Santa Rosa writes that when he was executive officer with the Army and Air Force post exchange service in England, they would round prices off to the nearest multiple of five to avoid distributing pennies, which could be used in local vending machines in place of a higher coin. Thus, if a purchase totalled $7.36 or $7.37 they would charge $7.35; and if it totaled $7.38 or $7.39, they would charge $7.40.

"We did well over a million dollars per month volume, and the accounting balanced out with practically no difference."

Robert J. Michaels, professor of economics at Cal State Fullerton, says that the practice of pricing things in odd cents goes all the way back to R. H. Macy, founder of the New York store.

He points out that according to Robert Hendrickson in "The Grand Emporium: A History of American Department Stores," the cash register had not been invented, and Macy realized that cash would be handled by "poorly paid clerks whose trustworthiness was uncertain."

He saw that dishonest clerks would be hard to catch if they pocketed money in even dollar amounts, but "if they had to make a small amount of change in a visible manner, mangement could easily monitor their honesty."

As Michaels observes, this story "does not provide a good answer about why the practice persists."

We are still paying, it seems, for the untrustworthiness of our ancestors.

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