Save Your Pennies!

When I was an early teenager you could find all sorts of interesting coins in your pocket change. The pre-1964 silver dimes, quarters and half dollars were still in circulation, as were buffalo nickels, the 1943 wartime zinc-coated steel penny, the 1944 “shell case” penny (so called because most of the copper was from recovered World War II artillery shell casings) and the 1942-45 “wartime nickels” (the ones with the big P, D or S mintmarks above the dome of Monticello).

I and many of my friends had these dark blue folding hard cardboard coin holders. There were separate ones for each denomination and design, and they’d have holes for every year the coin was made, and every location (Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco). We’d look through our change hoping to found the coins that matched all of the labeled holes. Some coins had such low mintages that we never did find any, but still it was a lot of fun and it didn’t cost much to keep us occupied.

After the government stopped making coins out of silver, all of the pre-1964 silver coins gradually disappeared from circulation. The silver value of the coins had become higher than their face values, and people were selling their circulated silver coins to dealers who’d melt them down to recover the silver. That’s why you don’t see any of the “Mercury” dimes in circulation anymore- as I write this their current silver value is worth about $2.15. By the way, there’s a great web site that tracks the value of copper, silver, nickel, zinc, etc. and gives you the daily melt value of all sorts of U.S. coins. The site is http://www.coinflation.com/.

There still is one coin in circulation, however, whose intrinsic melt value is higher than its face value. It’s the lowly penny. Not all pennies, mind you, just those pennies dated 1981 or earlier. You see, due to the rising cost of copper, in mid-1982 the U.S. Mint changed the composition of the one cent piece from 95% copper and 5% zinc to 2.5% copper and 97.5% zinc. A penny with a 1982 date could be made of either composition, and it’s pretty hard for the average person to tell the difference. However, all of the pennies dated AFTER 1982 are made of the new (less valuable) composition, and all of the pennies dated BEFORE 1982 are made of 95% copper.

The current price of copper is about $3.35/pound. According to http://www.coinflation.com/, at this price, the copper melt value of $1.00 worth of 95% copper pennies is $2.19! It’s going to take a long time to accumulate enough pre-1982 pennies in order to make any significant money, but that’s not the point. You and I aren’t going to hoard pre-1982 pennies in order to ensure our retirements. However, if you have children or grandchildren, this is a great idea to pass along to them. Tell them to start looking through your pocket change and to save all of the pennies that are dated before 1982. They’ll have hours of fun, and it opens the door for you to talk with them about savings, investments, commodities, why some things are valued the way they are, and so forth. If your kids/grandkids are already into stocks and bonds, this is probably not going to excite them very much. But if they’re younger, need a tactile environment, or just need something to keep them busy for a while, they might really like hearing about this.

Len Dunikoski

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