So you’re outside the car wash and the clock is ticking on the pay vacuum sweeper. You notice a penny in the corner of the floor mat you’re sweeping. Do you reach in to pick it up?
That was me last weekend, and my penny went up the hose with a tinny slurp. I guess twisting my back to reach the penny wasn’t worth a cent. If it were a nickel, I’d have debated but picked it up, or a dime. Quarters feed meters, so I keep them in the little round slots in the storage box between the car seats. But the lowly penny – why bother?
I don’t think very many of us use actual money any more. I handed over some cold, hard cash last week at the Starbucks drive-thru window. Every other time, I’ve handed over my cold, hard debit card, but this time I didn’t have it with me (having given it to my child who also didn’t have any cash). Just as I was panicking that I might have to keep driving without stopping for my coffee, I opened the little ashtray drawer (something else that never gets used) and – imagine! – there was a five-dollar bill. A crispy green Abe right there in my car. I handed it to the young man in the window and he handed me my $4 coffee and walked away with my cash, then returned a few seconds later with a my change: a few quarters, a nickel and some pennies.
It’s been so long since I’ve received real, jingly change I’d forgotten that workers don’t count out the change any more. When I worked at a grocery store, we counted the change as we dropped it into the customer’s hand. That’s 20, 25, 50, 75, a dollar. But now, the young man dropped the change into my palm in a clump and I transferred most of it into the tip jar, keeping a quarter for the little change slot in the box between the seats.
The experts say it’s better to use cash, because if you don’t have it in your pocket, you don’t spend it. It’s a good theory, but it means you have to have cash with you all the time, and who does that anymore? Seems to me you’re trading the savings from avoiding small, frivolous purchases for those fees they charge when you withdraw cash from the bank machine. It’s just so convenient to hand over the debit card. Some places don’t even make you sign your name, and at my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, they ask if you even want a receipt.
I’m waiting for vending machines to work that way. While teaching a university class this week, I found myself halfway through a long lecture in a warm classroom without my bottle of water. I was tired of hearing my own voice and choking on my own dry tongue, and so I told the class to take a break and dove into my wallet.
My wallet was jammed with pennies. So that’s why my purse has been feeling so heavy lately. I needed six quarters to get a bottle of water (almost as ridiculous as the $4 coffee), but was a quarter low. I thought about running to my car for some quarters, or asking a student to trade me a quarter for some of my pennies and nickels, but that seemed like too much work. I ran to the hall and got a drink from the fountain.
All the pennies in the world couldn’t buy me what I needed right then, so what good are they? Canada agrees with me, and announced last week they are phasing out the penny. Considering I don’t use real money, and don’t care about pennies, I wonder how I ended up with so many.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.