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Penny Foolish

July 27, 1987|NOEL GUNTHER | Noel Gunther is a writer in Washington

Penny candy, penny ante, the penny arcade. A good 5-cent cigar. Nice phrases, but they're all outdated, even quaint. The fact is, nothing costs a penny, or even two, anymore. And the billions of pennies in circulation are jamming vending machines, stalling lines and creating a major headache for the U.S. Mint. It's time to send the penny out to pasture.

There are plenty of practical reasons to stop making pennies. They account for 75% of the coins produced by the United States. They cost the mint more than $90 million each year, and private companies spend millions more for counting and storing. Pennies use up vast amounts of zinc and copper--versatile metals that could otherwise be used to make kettles or kickstands.

But mostly pennies are just too much trouble. They spread and multiply faster than cockroaches in Texas. They cover our tabletops, fill up our ashtrays, wear out our pockets and purses. They account for millions of hours spent waiting in line while cashiers fumble to make change or shoppers sift through their purses to dig them out.

Millions of people already leave their pennies at home. The mint coins more than 12 billion pennies every year; of those, more than 2 billion disappear almost immediately--into piggy banks, mayonnaise jars and dresser drawers. Collectors start with a glimmer of hope--a penny saved is a penny earned, we tell ourselves--but soon enough pitching pennies into a jar becomes just another habit. When one jar fills up, we open another, too busy or too lazy ever to take stock of the collection.

I used to be a hoarder. For two years of college my roommate and I carefully saved our coppers, with the idea of throwing a "Pennies From Heaven" party after graduation. We filled six jars with what looked like a fortune. The day before graduation we emptied the jars and counted out $21.56 --barely enough to buy the beer. To pay for our party we needed real money--nickels and quarters and $10 bills.

Now I've switched sides, and I take every opportunity to get rid of my pennies. I carefully sort through my change when a grocery bill is $12.09. I toss pennies into fountains and wish for luck. I leave them behind for Jerry's Kids, the MS Foundation, even the March of Dimes (I hope they don't mind). But still the pennies pop up--more pervasive than cicadas in June, more persistent than a heat wave in July. I've thrown away my piggy banks, but my pockets are bulging and my desk drawer is full.

Enough already. Let's round off prices to the nearest nickel and spend less time waiting in line. Let's say goodby to the pesky penny and free ourselves to collect something more valuable--like bottle caps.

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