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Sierra's little corner of the internet

On Physical Currency: Use your dang cash!

currency coins

There are a lot of misconceptions about physical US currency that have existed as long as I’ve been alive. Half Dollars are seen as a rare artifact of the distant past. Every couple years there’s a story about someone getting arrested for paying with a $2 bill by officers and cashiers who don’t know they are still being actively produced and circulated. In 2005, a man was arrested and spent time in county jail for using a $2 at a Best Buy. In 2016, a child was arrested for paying for school lunch with a $2 bill. In most other countries, all of their currency is utilized, yet the US has several denominations that are still being made for circulation that people hoard because they think they aren’t being made anymore! This, on top of the ever-present decline in coin usage due to people moving to online payments or just not worrying about making exact change (a lot of this is due to the pandemic but this has been a trend for years at this point).

Today, I say USE YOUR CASH!!

Yes, they still make $2 bills

If you have a box full of $2 bills lying around, they’re just collecting dust. Most $2 are only worth face value to collectors. If you have a $2 that’s valuable, you’ll know immediately. If the seals aren’t green, then it’s at least 60 years old, and if you DO spend those, they will most likely end up at a bank and exchanged to the treasury for modern $2 bills and destroyed. $2 bills are only scarce because banks don’t utilize them as much, and people think that they aren’t printed anymore. With the current prices of goods, a $2 is much more versatile than a $1, as there are many things worth $2 or less, but few worth $1 or less. One popular use is for transit fares in places without transit cards, stocking up on $2 bills is easy to budget out transit costs and easier to pay with.

Half dollars aren’t that special

Well, some are, but there’s a very specific criteria to determine whether or not to save it.

This year is an awesome year for half dollars! The US Mint has officially started making half dollars for circulation again! The half dollar was only minted for collector sets between 2002 and 2020, since its usage fell dramatically in the 90s. Most half dollars in circulation today were made in 70s. The only half dollars worth keeping are the ones made with silver, and the ones made for collectors. This includes:

  • Any half dollar that doesn’t have Kennedy on the front (90% silver)
  • 1964 Kennedy half dollar (90% silver)
  • 1965-1970 Kennedy half dollar (40% silver)
  • Proofs, these have shiny mirror like surfaces that are hard to miss. Kennedy proofs from 1992 onwards are also 90% silver
  • 2002-2020 Kennedy half dollar: uncirculated collector’s coins, but these are copper so only worth face value for now, and if you don’t collect there’s not much point in keeping them now that they’re being minted for circulation again

The Mint WANTS you to use your dollar coins! Use them!!!

Most countries in the world have gotten rid of 1 and 2 denominations in paper form and made them coin exclusive. Coins are far more durable. $1 bills are the most used paper denomination in the US, thus they wear out very quickly, with the average $1 bill only lasting 2-3 years in circulation. Coins however, last far longer, and even though they cost more to manufacture, they’re more cost-effective in the long run as long as they’re widely adopted.

In the early 2000s, the dollar coin usage was very low, so the US Mint started several attempts at making commemorative dollar coin designs to try and push for wider adoption, which failed. Thus, starting in 2011, new dollar coins were only minted for collectors. Use dollar coins whenever you can, however there are a few exceptions:

  • Large dollars, Eisenhowers and older: Not only are most of these silver, modern dollars are much smaller, and these dollar coins won’t fit in modern vending machines and coin sorters. This caused many problems when the Susan B. Anthony dollar was first introduced in the 70s in the current smaller form factor.
  • Susan B. Anthony Dollars: These were only minted for 4 years: 1979-1981 and 1999. Even okay condition coins are marginally worth more than face value.
  • Collector’s coins: Minted 2011-present, proofs
  • Bullion Dollars: Never, ever, ever spend US bullion at face value. Bullion Dollars use a Dollar design as a commemorative, however the treasury will redeem them at their precious metal value. Chances are, you only came across one of these by buying them from the Mint for well over face value or you’re really really lucky. You can tell if it’s a bullion coin if it contains wording that shows its metal purity, and they come in many face value “denominations” up to the $100 1 oz platinum coin that’s available for $1,600 from the Mint.

Use ALL of your change

Unless you’ve got your hands on a ton of cash, I’d keep it around and use it instead of using your card when going shopping for a smaller purchase, or for tipping at restaurants. And I mean all of it. I have a coin sorter tray that holds a decent amount of each denomination: 1¢, 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, 50¢, and $1. I also keep coin rolls, however I don’t have enough coins to roll any at the moment. The particular sorter I use has just enough space to measure out a coin roll and easily let me roll it up when it fills.

You don’t need to keep a coin purse with you either. When going out to use cash, you can carry the minimum amount of coins to make perfect change for any amount under a dollar:

  • 4 pennies
  • 1 nickel
  • 2 dimes
  • 3 quarters

I also carry more quarters usually, I use them for vending machines when I’m on campus (I can’t wait to get back in person in the fall). They’re also good for paying for laundry instead of using up your bills at a laundromat or self service car wash!

You’ll be surprised just how much change you use if you strive to make exact change and use your cash on hand before you pull out your card in person. Exact change is even more important now during the coin shortage, getting more coins in circulation is top priority, even if the stores in your town aren’t having trouble making change for cash purchases. Those coins will end up at a bank at the end of the week, which will be distributed to other banks, or the treasury, and sent back out to other banks and distributed to more people.

Use your cash!!