Boomers Respected Loose Change

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?

Boomers Embraced Change

Recently, Mister Boomer observed a group of teenage boys horsing around (as our parents used to say) while walking down the street. They were punching each others’ arms and running away, like some sort of tag game, until one boy pulled pennies out of his pocket and started hurling them at his friends. They, in turn, picked the coins up and hurled them back, until all efforts focused on hitting one kid. When the dust settled and the group walked on, Mister B saw a couple of dozen pennies littering the sidewalk. He had seen abandoned pennies on this walk before, and wondered about their presence. After testing the hypothesis that by picking them up, all the day he would have good luck, to no avail … at least now he knew how and why they got there.

What was surprising to Mister B was the casual way in which these teens threw away money — yet after a little thought, it wasn’t surprising at all. They live in a time when a penny buys virtually nothing. In our boomer years, a penny could buy ten caramel swirl candies or two root beer candies. Five pennies bought a premium candy bar. Just ten pennies bought a McDonald’s hamburger. Boomers were used to carrying change, because it was spendable income.

Mister Boomer recalls in his early days, on occasion his father would race his kids back to the car in a shopping center parking lot. (Please don’t even THINK of such a thing as kids running through a parking lot these days.) As he ran, he’d have to grab his pants pocket to quell the jingling of all the change, which, if he hadn’t, would find its way out onto the pavement, thereby letting his kids win the race. His father carried a lot of change, and counted it out, coin by coin, to cashiers in supermarkets and ice cream parlors, department stores and drive-in theaters. Change was good.

Mister Boomer still has the first wallet he was ever given, though it has long been out of service due to its condition. The zippered leather wallet opened to an area containing picture-holding sleeves on one side, and a snap-closure change pocket on the other. Women regularly carried change purses, and many boomer women do so to this day.

Somewhere in the late sixties, there was a sea change in Mister B’s dad, and he no longer wanted to carry it. Instead, he’d stockpile any coins he got until they got unmanageable. Then he’d give Mister B coin sleeves that he picked up from the bank, and asked him and his sister to pack the correct amount into the sleeves. Often he’d give the kids a roll of pennies or nickels as payment for services rendered. When he passed away, Mister Boomer and his siblings discovered boxes full of jars in his room that contained what was probably years of loose change. There was so much change that it brought the supermarket coin machine to its knees, as a voice from within it said, “Please wait. My, you have a lot of coins.”

It turns out, he wasn’t alone. Many boomers picked up the habit of not carrying change lest it ruin the line of their trousers (we talked like that back then). By the 1970s, large water jugs were commonplace in boomer apartments, slowly filling with pennies or mixed change. Nonetheless, change was still money. There were many times Mister B recalled friends raiding their change jug for gas money.

Today we are at a crossroads concerning the use of coins. It was once thought that coins would always be necessary as long as there were vending machines, but the advance of electronic payment methods has rendered that argument useless. Then there was the fiasco of the dollar coin by the U.S. Mint. There have been predictions that we were heading toward not only a coinless future, but a cashless one, which have been bantered around for a couple of decades now. At this point, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has stated in a recent study that cash is still the preferred method of payment for roughly half of all transactions less than $50 in the U.S.

Even still, it looks like boomers lived during the Golden Age of Coins and Loose Change. Millennials (people aged 18-34) are changing the landscape on how transactions are paid. Studies show they currently use cash more than any other method, but that is only because they don’t want to incur debt through a credit card. Their preferred method, according to multiple sources, would be an electronic transfer via smartphone. Mister Boomer has observed millennials paying for a pack of gum with a debit card. As it turns out, this is not unusual as BankRate.com says one in three millennials pay daily transactions with debit cards. Capital One, the credit card company, chimes in that one in four millennials say they rarely or never carry cash because it’s “too inconvenient.” Business Insider adds that in their survey, 40 percent of millennials would give up cash today if easily workable methods could replace it. Apple, Amazon, Pay Pal and a host of others are attempting to do just that.

In 2015, a growing Chinese middle class made more purchases via smartphone than on computers. The pace of Internet purchases in the U.S. via smartphone is also increasing by leaps and bounds. By 2021, home personal digital assistants are expected to expand by 84 percent. Instead of reaching into a pocket for change in a brick-and-mortar business, you’ll speak to a disembodied voice that will arrange a purchase for you, and debit the money from your account.

What memories of loose change do you have, boomers? Are you lamenting the decline of cash and coins, or do you embrace this change?