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The COVID-19 Coin Shortage

Well, I predicted Wikipedia in the early ’90s. How could I not have predicted this: Banks are rationing coins. Why? The US Mint cut back production of coins so it could distance its staff to reduce their chances of infection. Reasonable enough. However, something else happened during the lockdowns: People stopped going shopping as much. Bank lobbies were closed much or most of the time. And when people don’t hit the stores as often, they have fewer chances to cash in their piles of pocket change via CoinStar and other similar machines. At our usual grocery store, the coin machine was moved out to make room for a new curbside pickup system. Curbside pickup reduced the number of people entering the store, and thus traffic past the coin machine. In truth, I don’t even know if it’s still there.

So the pennies are piling up. Even I have more of them than I generally do. Last fall I noticed that I was getting a lot of old-ish pennies in change, and wrote up my theory that older people are dying, and their kids are cashing in the penny jars in the kitchen cabinets, nightstands, or other nooks and crannies. I was getting several a day for awhile. After the first of the year they became a lot less common. I still don’t know why. I now maybe get three a week. Maybe two. Some are old while still looking very recent: last week I got a 1992-D with about 90% of its mint luster. Not bad for a penny that’s old enough to vote.

My guess: Not only are the penny jars still out there, the old ones are filling up even faster and new ones have been started. Once we’re shut of the lockdowns, a yuge pile of pennies (and other coins) will surge into the bank lobbies and coin machines, and I will once again see 40-year-old mint luster when I pop for a coffee at McDonald’s.


  1. Roy Harvey says:

    You sure do a lot of cash transactions. I used to use cash regularly at just two places. One was the food court at Costco, where $3 plus tax got me two hot dogs. I usually had the right change to only get back a few pennies. But I finally started using my store Visa where I get money back. The other is the butcher, where I still pay cash but round up to the next dollar, then add one and tell them to keep the change for a tip. So the only change I’ve received in a while was a dime I picked up from the ground.

    1. My heuristic is to pay cash for anything $20 or under. That keeps a certain amount of low-value clutter out of my charge accounts, which matters when I review everything at the end of the month. A lot of that is McDonald’s coffee and odd groceries from Fry’s, when we run out of something unexpected. Or when I damned well feel like a bag of potato chips. So I get a certain number of coins and small bills back when I feed the grocery store autocheckout a $20. The small bills generally end up at McDonald’s. The coins, well, they’re adding up a little, but not so much as to be a problem.

      1. Jason Bucata says:

        For some years now I’ve taken to buying gift cards to use as pseudo-cash. I’ve experimented with it over time, also to limit the number of entries on credit card statements.

        I’ve settled on using McDonald’s gift cards for most purchases, especially smaller ones, like just a pop at the drive-thru.

        Also using Walmart/Sam’s Club gift cards, particularly for getting gas. Except today at Walmart (the first day I’d heard about this coin shortage) my gift card ran out and I owed exactly $11 for the rest of the purchase amount. I went to put two bills into the self-checkout but then remembered they had disabled the ability to pay cash!

        I also sometimes buy gift cards for a local grocery chain.

        Beyond that I’ve tried it for other retailers (typically fast food) but either I don’t eat there often enough to bother, or if what I normally buy/order is expensive enough that it drains a gift card too quickly.

  2. Don Doerres says:

    I stopped by the drug store an hour ago to pick up a prescription. They had just put a sign up saying they were short of change, and would prefer credit/debit card.

  3. Rich Shealer says:

    I have a Tide Pod container that is 2/3 full (by height not volume) that I use for my Las Vegas fund. AT the end of the day all coin change goes in that container. Even dollar coins when I have them. When it is time CoinStar turns them into an Amazon coupon for no fee.

    I’ve probably put less than $2 in since mid-March as I haven’t used cash for much since then. Everything is on the cards usually through the phone pay app.

    I haven’t had to use an ATM since then either. Since we have not gotten carry out since then except for a pizza a few weeks ago and I’m not making a quick stop at the convenience store, I’ve lost over 20 lbs.

    Oh and since Vegas isn’t happening this year, those coins will probably sit there for another year if we ever get rolling again.

    Do you think I should go ahead and turn them in to help out?

    1. Well, if you’re not still holding out for a Vegas trip, sure. Or consider that coins don’t get moldy, and sooner or later Vegas will open again. Now, how does an Amazon coupon help you with Vegas?

      1. Rich Shealer says:

        The CoinStar takes 11.9% of the total when you get cash back, but Amazon gift certificates are issued at 100%. We order enough with Amazon that I basically buy it back from myself with cash that I would have paid the credit card.

        I was thinking if the shortage is truly a problem, and I’ve seen local posts talking about local stores having problems, am I adding to it with my $200 worth of change or is it statistically insignificant.

        It’s normally at least 3-5 years between trips anyway so another year isn’t a big deal.

      2. Bob Halloran says:

        Don’t know about Amazon either, but Coinstar kiosks do let you cut gift cards to both & Southwest Airlines, which I assume flies into McLaren, so you could get a break on your trip & stay.

        1. Bob Halloran says:

          hate autocorrect: McCarran is the Vegas airport.

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