On a recent walk to a market, Mister Boomer saw a penny on the sidewalk. Immediately he recalled the old adage, “Find a penny, pick it up; all the day you’ll have good luck.” No, he didn’t bother to pick it up, but he mentally coupled the thought with another incident surrounding pennies he had observed a few months earlier: a group of teenaged boys were throwing pennies at one another at full arm’s speed. Laughing all the time, they chucked cents around like it made sense. There you go. The attitude toward pennies — or change in general — is another thing that can make boomers feel as old as the penny itself. These days, people don’t share the same respect boomers had for spare change. After all, boomers were taught that pennies were money, and 100 of them equaled a dollar. And “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
To be sure, many boomers didn’t like carrying spare change, and kept piggy banks or jars at home to collect the coins. Mister Boomer knew others who possessed giant glass jugs that they slowly but surely filled with pennies. In many of those instances, however, the pennies were used in playing various card games, so the jar represented a supply for that purpose, with winnings added back to the jug.
Mister Boomer’s father didn’t like to carry change. He tended to drop coins into any jars that were around. When he passed away, Mister B and his siblings found boxes of jars, filled with coins, under his bed. Bagging the coins, they took them to a local supermarket that had a coin machine. About halfway through the process, the machine decided to speak: “My, you have a lot of coins,” was the pronouncement.
The change revolution has trickled down to the panhandler as well. During the Depression, a popular song asked, “Brother, can you spare a dime.” Decades ago, street beggars routinely asked passersby for “spare change.” Mister Boomer recently saw a panhandler seated on a sidewalk in front of a line of retail stores, holding a hand-written cardboard sign. In addition to the requisite plea for assistance, the person indicated at the bottom of the sign that he also accepted contributions via Venmo, and included his digital address.
To everyone’s dismay these days, things cost more — way more — than what boomers knew in their wonder years; you can’t buy gum for a nickel; gas isn’t twenty cents a gallon; you can’t see a movie matinee for fifty cents. Time marches on, and as we know, “time is money.” For decades now, there has been an ongoing debate about whether the penny has outlived its usefulness. To make matters worse, it costs 2.7 cents to make a single penny (2022).
Online sales require a different form of payment, and digital wallets continue to make inroads into how we pay for items when we do go into physical stores. So why do some people, like Mister Boomer, prefer to pay cash and carry change? In Mister B’s case, it all comes back to the days he taught himself how to budget his spending. Paying in cash was a physical reminder to keep track of what you were spending. When the cash ran out, you didn’t have more to spend, and would not incur debt. It was a simple exercise that has served him throughout his adult life.
There have been attempts by some businesses to round off the loose change in their totals to avoid pennies, but it has been met with backlash by consumers over the extra few cents’ charge. This approach has been embraced by other countries. Sweden, New Zealand and Australia dropped their version of the penny more than 25 years ago. Canada stopped minting new pennies back in 2013. Still, will we eliminate the U.S. penny? Will a nickel become the next penny? “The only thing constant is change,” and that holds true for change, too. Certainly coins have changed through the decades. The U.S. penny has changed, too, even during our boomer years. Boomers remember when the Lincoln Memorial replaced the “wheat penny” back design in 1959. In 2010, the boomer-era Lincoln Memorial on the back side of the penny was replaced with a “union shield.” The penny was, between 1947 and 1982, still made with 95% copper. Currently it is made of copper-plated zinc, containing only 2.5% copper.
No matter what happens next, boomers experienced a fundamentally different relationship with coins than the generations that followed.
“A penny for your thoughts,” boomers. What sense do you make of cents these days?