Cottrel: Hoarding coins during the pandemic may be leading to a shortage

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Those of you who are collecting change in five gallon water bottles in hopes of someday cashing it in for a cruise, pay attention. You might be causing some problems.

I first heard that there might be a coin shortage at a softball game while socially distancing myself behind a yellow crime tape and squinting to see which player was mine. From six feet away another parent reported seeing a coin shortage sign at a local home improvement store. So, of course, we Googled it and discussed.

Apparently in the grand scheme of economics, I learned, loose change is supposed to circulate. You get change and you use it to buy something else. The coins are not supposed to linger for years in your sock drawer or old purses.

Every year the U.S. Mint stamps millions of coins; not commemorative pretties, just plain but shiny pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. These coins get sent to banks for distribution to businesses that need to give change for cash purchases. Every store goes though a particular number of coin rolls a week.

Well it takes people to run those machines that make coins, and people who also need to be careful to not catch COVID-19. Because of the pandemic precautions, the normal number of coins made this year is considerably less than it was last year at this time so there are fewer new coins available than normal.

Meanwhile in the piggy banks of America, under sofa cushions, and lurking in junk drawers, coins are accumulating. Purses are getting too heavy to carry.

Generally there has to be a reason for folks to gather up the coins. Nothing makes the coin search more urgent than the distant music of the ice cream truck or the need to go to a movie, get lunch money, play games at an arcade, or find snack money for a trip to an amusement park.

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But during this pandemic no one is going anywhere. After awhile the cache grows to the point that it really should be cashed in or the floors will begin to sag.

Back in the day, long ago before coin counting machines, people who saved coins had to sort them by type then stack the coins in neat little columns on a table. The coins would be inserted into paper sleeves the size of fingers on a glove. A penny sleeve roll had 50 pennies in it so it was worth 50 cents. There were 40 nickels in a roll and it was worth $2.00. Fifty dimes added up to a $5 roll and 40 quarters filled a sleeve that was worth $10.

This used to be a good form of entertainment for kids on rainy summer days and generally resulted in matinee tickets or trips to the ice cream store.

However, modern generations don’t want to waste their time with counting. They prefer to collect their unsorted cache into a container and go to the bank.

It is indeed fun to take a coin collection into the bank or credit union and pour pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters into the coin counting machine which makes a huge commotion 10 times louder than coins in the dryer. Then the noise stops, and the machine dispenses a magic slip of paper. The coin collector gives it to the teller in exchange for “real” money with pictures of Washington, Lincoln or Hamilton on them.

The coin saver is happy to have the money in a more spendable form and actually the bank is pleased to get the loose change. These coins become part, once again, of that cycle that coins go through. At the bank the coins are put in rolls, and sent out again to a business to make change.

Now we have heard of more than one local business posting that they want exact change to be used in purchases, so that they do not use up all their dimes and nickels. Remember, they were given fewer coin rolls than usual because the mint is slower because of COVID precautions for its employees.

The system might have adjusted to this slow down but the banks also closed their lobbies because of the coronavirus pandemic, which denied access to the coin counting machines. Kids bearing jars of treasure into the lobby were locked out because of…you guessed it….COVID precautions, which I must admit are no laughing matter.

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When there are fewer coins being made, and fewer people turning in their loose change collections, there can be a bit of a shortage.

Now don’t panic. This is not like the toilet paper shortage, it’s just a minor inconvenience that might require a clerk getting some coins from another cashier or rounding up or down. There is no need to hoard pennies.

Because there is no way to turn them in, the coins collect at home like the Treasure of the Sierra Madre or maybe Oak Island. Storing them requires bigger and bigger containers. And people begin to think about dinners at fancy restaurants or cruises when they can finally be cashed in.

So what can we do? It turns out that ending this coin shortage crisis is well within our capabilities.

We could just start spending it bit by bit, four quarters at a time instead of a dollar. I like to save my loose change for toll roads on vacation, which means that we need a road trip. We could wash our cars every day at the place with the water wand. Twenty nickels could buy fries at a fast food drive through. We could buy more soda from vending machines. Where are the Salvation Army kettles when we need them?

Or we can do the simple thing, just call the bank and make an appointment for our coins to be cashed in. It’s very simple, I hear. You wear a mask, they wear a mask, but it’s okay because everyone is smiling and you are giving them money.

The loud counting machine makes its earsplitting music, it stops and you get pieces of paper with pictures of presidents and founding fathers.

Best of all, the bank then has more rolls of coins to give to the businesses. Commerce and capitalism go smoothly on with no delay. The stock market goes up and Disneyland reopens.

Thanks to us, crisis is averted. There is one less problem in the world and it’s time for ice cream.