Are dimes the new pennies?

2005 Pennies © by Mat_the_W

To prepare for my current column at Get Rich Slowly, “25 ways to give (without breaking the bank),” I counted my found money collection. From last December through yesterday, I’ve picked up $13.24 in singles and coins.

Here’s the surprising part: $5.60 of that amount was in dimes. As many as 56 people didn’t bother picking up the 10-cent pieces they dropped. I routinely see dimes in those “need a penny, take a penny” cups at cash registers, too.

Maybe some shoppers added the dimes by mistake, and maybe those who dropped coins didn’t always realize it.

Maybe they just didn’t consider it a big deal — or maybe they were too embarrassed to pick the money back up.

Some people are ashamed to be seen picking up coins. I’ve heard from them; in fact, some have told me I ought to be ashamed, too. Apparently such behavior is unseemly. Too nickel-and-dime, so to speak.

When used as an adjective, two of the definitions of nickel-and-dime are “low-paid” and “small-scale or of little importance.” How much does it pay you, really, to bend down and pick it up?

One-tenth of a dollar for a few seconds’ work, in my book. Is it small-scale? Yes. Of little importance? Depends on where you are in life.

According to Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest), $1 will buy the ingredients for eight meals. Thus a dime is almost somebody’s dinner.


Small expenses

When used as a verb, nickel-and-dime means “to impoverish through small expenses.” Sound familiar?

We sweat the big-ticket items – illness, auto repair, mortgage – but the small expenses are the ones that drain our wallets on a daily basis. Bus fare, school field trips, a gallon of milk, cough medicine, annual auto tags and other individual expenses add up distressingly fast.

When you factor in small luxuries like a few special cupcakes, a midnight movie or an occasional therapeutic massage, your checking account grows pale and faint.

It’s frustrating when you feel that you haven’t been a spendthrift yet it seems hard to get ahead. That’s because you’re being nickel-and-dimed. More specifically, you’re nickel-and-diming yourself.

But it’s just coffee and a bagel with a co-worker! Just some popcorn and soda at the Cineplex, just the latest issue of The Atlantic….just a minute, why is my debit card being declined?


Small change

Maybe dropped dimes, or all dropped coins, are a symptom of how detached we’ve become from our money. Coins somehow aren’t as valuable as folding green, dollar bills get handed to our kids for treats at the mini-mart, and larger bills seem to bleed from our budgets.

Sure, it’s “only” a dime. But dimes add up to dollars, and dollars dissolve into dimes.

That’s not to say you can’t have a magazine, or order a strategic pizza from time to time. But if you do these things automatically vs. mindfully, your money just evaporates into purchases you can’t really remember.

Try this: For the next week chronicle every dime. Seriously: Write down everything you spend on every purchase, from apples to Zantac. An online money-management tool like Mint.com or PowerWallet will help you keep track of the debit and credit purchases, but carry a piece of paper in your wallet to scribble down where the actual cash went, too.

The final tally – and the most top-heavy categories – might surprise you. They might also help you look at spending in a different way.


Dude, where’s my money?

That doesn’t mean giving up everything that makes life good. It does mean questioning money habits that have become so rote you no longer notice them.

Every dollar does matter, and so does every dime. Again, that’s not to say you’re not allowed to spend your own money. Just be aware of how you’re spending it, and question whether your habits are supporting your values and/or your eventual goals.

Think I’m being nitpicky? Read John Scalzi’s simple yet powerful essay, “Being poor.” One way you know you’re poor is if you pick “the 10-cent ramen instead of the 12-cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.”

Obviously this was written a while back (2005). The best ramen deal I’ve seen lately outside a warehouse club was 12.5 cents a package. But if all you had were a few pennies, you’d be praying for the chance to find a dime.

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  1. Thanks for mentioning Adaptu! Hope we can help you and your readers tracking their dimes and pennies 🙂

  2. Donna,
    I found a newly-minted quarter today in a parking lot after dark. It was so large and strangely shiny that I did not recognize it as money! I thought it was the foil liner like in otc medicine bottles or the inside oc chocolate milk, not that I would know what is inside bottle of chocolate milk. It is more likely that anything shiny will be a tiny dime. That saves 24 times of bending over for 25 cents.

    As for the people who will not keep their change and put it in the dish on the counter–they feel like taking back a penny makes them look “poor.” They are embarassed to pick pennies, dimes, most change from the counter or don’t want to be seen hoarding it by putting back in their pockets like a penny means something to them.Their mumble and words indicating they don’t “need” the penny or the cavalier attitude give them away. Pennies have always meant something to me, even when I was not strapped for money.

  3. You know what has really been annoying lately for me is the grocery store asking for donations. Every week when your total is finished, they ask if I would like to round up to the next dollar to help blind pigs in Africa or poor spinsters who need to knit or whatever it is that week. I’m sure the real charities are good causes, but I don’t like to be put on the spot like that. You feel like a heel if you say no, but 50 cents a week for a year would pay for one grocery trip. I do give to charity, but I like it to be on my own terms.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kim: I agree. I prefer to choose my own charities. (In fact, I’m about to make a Red Cross donation due to not-so-fair-Isaac.)
      My response at the cash register is always a polite, “Not today, thanks.”

    • Thank you!!!!! I’ve been feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge at the checkout line, too.

      I really dislike that. Every time you go to swipe your card, you have to hit “NO” on the machine, which is annoying enough without some clerk asking “Would you like to donate to the starving crippled homeless refugee children in South Phoenix” and forcing me to say “no.”

      If a grocery chain wants to donate to charity, how’s about it donates some of its corporate profits?

  4. I’ve never been able to pass a fallen coin, especially a silver one! I once saw a teenager throw a handful of change into a garbage can. No, I didn’t go in after it. 😉 But I did find myself questioning his parenting.

  5. I find dimes, nickels and pennies all the time. Guess I am the only person in the land of lincoln who saves them in her tweety piggy bank and hauls them to the bank once a month on foot.

  6. I cannot cross the parking lot at the local strip mall without watching out for and usually finding a few coins. I put my finds in a small candy tin and at the end of the year have a nice lunch out on them. If you are a penny pickerupper, finding a penny perks up the day ………a few quarters really lights up the day. :0)

    • ImJuniperNow

      Last week while walking the dog I found a dollar bill! Today is Burger King’s $1 smoothie promotion. Guess where I’ll be!

  7. Holly Samlan

    Not finding much left/forgotten change these days in my neck of the woods.

    I used to find dropped coins near toll booths BUT people use the (cheaper) pass system today.
    I used to find left/forgotten change in the coin change dispenser at the grocery or Walgreens. Not any more. Too many people in too tight counting EVERY coin straits these days.
    Don’t even ask about pay phone left change – What are pay phons? Non-existant these days.

  8. ImJuniperNow

    Okay, I confess, I still feel embarrassed picking up change. But since I walk with my head down anyway, I might as well do it.

    I see people dropping change at the supermarket checkout and usually ignoring it. If it’s still there after they walk away, I blush a little and retrieve it (without looking back – I know the other shoppers are giving me disapproving looks).

    I’ve only recently gotten over being embarrassed to stop in broad daylight at people’s curbs and check out interesting/useful items. I used to go back when it was dark, and the stuff would be gone and then I’d kick myself. Most of it gets sold at the Rotary Club charity consignment shop, so we both benefit.

    Reduce Reuse Recycle can include loose change!

  9. If you assume it takes 5 seconds to pick up a dime, you’re earning 2 pennies per second. That translates into $1.20 per minute and $72 per hour. Not a bad wage =)

    I’m totally with you: I pick up any change I find. And I love your charitable outtake on it (our found money goes into our regular change jar, which we use to save up for house-related purchases). More people need to move past the society-imposed shame associated with it and learn to value money–even pennies–for what they are. Of course, there would be less money to find if that happened!

  10. Do I care when someone sees me pick up a coin, no, who cares!

    Funny thing is I went to the post office this past week, I came back to my car from inside and spotted what looked to be a dime behind and in the drive lane three parked cars away from mine, I went over and picked it up. This is funny, I am so near sighted without my glasses, but there was a ray of sunshine on it like it was a dime from Heaven that I spotted it so well!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Christy: I’ve been known to glimpse a penny from 100 feet. I agree: It’s the sun on the copper.

  11. I wonder how many calories you burn picking up a penny? Maybe if people looked at it as getting paid to exercise then they would be more mindful of their change.

  12. I had a friend who found money on the ground ALL the time…and not pennies, but dimes and quarters and occasionally even paper money. She was amazing!

    Guess you can train yourself to be observant. I’m so oblivious I hardly ever spot things like that.

    When loose change has spilled out of my wallet at the grocery store checkout, I’ve been known to grab just the few pieces I could see at a glance, or the ones that were largest, and leave the rest — the people in line get crabby if you hold them up looking for lost money.

    The whole idea that you should be embarrassed to pick up change…what IS that about? It’s a relatively new trope. People didn’t used to behave like that — I find it very weird.

  13. Alane Farmer

    I was recently walking across the parking lot of my local Walmart with my mom. Came across a penny, tail side up and with a very rough edge. said to myself ” Donna wouldn’t care” so in my pocket it went. After my mom and I checked out we passed other registers and a man was standing at a register saying ” A penny? Oh man” with arms out he looks all over the floor and says ” Where are all the pennys people always drop on the floor?” So, I said ” Hey I found a penny in the parking lot” handed it to him and you should have heard his thanks and whoops and hollers. Don’t know why he needed it and don’t care. His happiness was the best penny I ever spent.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Alane: I wonder if he was literally short one penny, or the amount was $20.01 and he didn’t want to break another $20 bill for a penny’s worth of payment.
      Either way: Nice job!
      (And you’re right: I wouldn’t have cared.)

    • God puts things in our path that may not be meant for us, but meant for a person we have yet to meet. Thank you for following God’s lead. We need more people in the world to do that.

  14. Hmmmm…Let me add my …”two cents”…LOL. I could write a book and probably should, on the direct correlation of loose change found in rental units after move out and the tenants financial condition. In units where I have had to evict the tenants…I have found the most “bounty” ….once a large styro foam coffee cup full of change after gathering coin thru out the unit. In units where the tenant is departing orderly and acted responsibly…little or no “bounty” is to be had. Crazy…my thought is that perhaps this behavior reflects control or the lack of control in folks day to day lives. Hence the thought “it’s only a nickel….what ya gonna do with a nickel?”…To me this makes “no cents”….

  15. I pick up change any time I see it, even when I was waaay pregnant. In 2008, I spotted a twenty-dollar bill in the parking lot of my YMCA! I RAN to pick it up. I didn’t care who saw me. Now I’m spoiled and feel disappointed when it’s less than $20, but I pick it up anyway. Thanks, Donna. Your articles are always the best.

  16. When we were little kids, my sister and I figured out that there is usually a ton of dropped change under waiting room vending machines. Being tiny, we could easily fit under (or behind) the machines, and usually managed to score enough to buy a snack. 🙂 Of course, climbing under a machine like that is dangerous, and I don’t recommend it, but there is usually a lot of change under them! (Maybe I can switch to carrying an extendable dust-broom in my purse??)

    • My supervisor at my previous job used to have a yard stick he would carry around and “sweep” under the vending machines several times a day and collect the change. Some days he would get $5 to $15 dollars. (There were over 20 machines) People would laugh at him but he said that it was his gas money. He lived in a very rural area and he had to drive 1hr 30mins one way to work. He made $45,000 a year and the people that gave up their change and was laughing were the ones that made $14,000 to $18,000 a year. I took his idea and now do it everywhere I go. Found $20 leaving a school the other day. I needed desperately for gas to get back to school and work for the rest of the week.

  17. I usually leave coins I have found because i figure there is always someone out there who might need it more than I do. I cannot say whether I would leave paper money as I have not found any just laying around.

  18. I always pick up coins, including pennies and give a little mental nod of thanks to the universe for reminding me of abundance. Yes, I know a single penny won’t buy much; I choose to see it symbolically. Now I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes having clicked the link to “Being Poor” and reading not only the list, but many of the comments. Wondering how to reconcile my view of the universe as abundant with the reality lived by so many others.

  19. I too pick up every coin I see no matter what, it says to the universe that you value money and regard it highly even in its smallest denomination. I end up with jars and jars of change, which I typically trade in for laundry money. So, I guess you could say, the universe does my laundry. HAHa! Someone’s got to do it! I had a friend from France also had the habit of picking up coins, and according to her, coins are RARELY found on the street in France. She was making some kind of implication that we obnoxious and careless Americans do not value things as the French do. I find coins where ever I go in Europe–sometimes piles and piles of them at a time.

  20. I pick up pennies, and consider dimes a bit of a treasure! lol I’m surprised that people don’t see the value in these coins anymore. In fact, here in Canada pennies are no longer going to be produced soon. So, pennies are definitely losing value in the eyes of people – but dimes? That’s ten pennies! I love a dime. 😉

  21. Linda Harr

    Hello: Enjoy reading your columns. Now I have a real reason to start walking outside every day. Maybe find some loose change. Thanks for the interesting articles!

  22. Donna: I stumbled across your site just last night and here I’m still reading. Such compelling stories! Thank You!

    I’d never pass by a coin without picking it up! As many have said, pennies add up to dollars.
    My ex had saved coins for years before we married back in ’86, and your article brought to mind a particular incident that happened long before the days of coin counting machines.
    As a newlywed, I was given the task of rolling/wrapping all the coins (in a very, very large, perhaps 20 quart glass jar)to take to the bank so that we could make some household purchase. My ex, who was good at estimating, came within $10 but I was way off and amazed when I counted up all of the coin wrappers…. that jar held nearly $1000.00!
    So, although I’ve always been frugal, nowadays I’m even more-so, and you can bet that I’m not the least bit ashamed and not about to pass by a coin on the ground!

    • Donna Freedman

      I’ve heard that story time and again: We had no idea how much money was in the jar/jug/giant piggy bank — and after we counted it, we respect coins a little more.
      Thanks for your kind words, and for leaving a comment.

  23. Although I’d never pass up a coin on the ground, and I’m always on the lookout, I rarely ever find any coins and have never found any paper money.
    Perhaps it’s a function of where you live. Here in the southeast, perhaps people are a bit more careful with their pennies 🙂
    Until I read some of the comments here, I’d never thought to check under vending machines, but to be sure I will from now on.

  24. ThreeGunFish

    I like picking up pennies. I find a lot of them when walking my dog.

    • Donna Freedman

      I suggest you do what I do: Put them all in a jar or other container for a year and see how they add up. My own found coins get donated to the food bank each year.


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