Filthy lucre.

The most-read piece I ever wrote for the Smart Spending blog was an essay called “See a penny? Pick it up!” Before MSN Money switched blog platforms, the article had received more than 1.6 million hits.

The comments were also numerous, and about evenly split: People who also happily gleaned change and people who thought the idea was unbelievably disgusting. Pick up dirty, germy, dog-peed-upon coins? Eeeeewwww.

I’m fully aware that found money isn’t clean. But it’s not as though I carry it home in my mouth.

Besides: I hate to break it to those folks, but the bills and specie they get from banks and stores are probably just as revolting.

The shopper ahead of you could have neglected to wash his hands after using the john. (So could the teller or the cashier.)

Maybe the waitress who brings your change is coming down with the flu.

I have personally seen people pull money out of shoes, socks and bras.

And what if somebody just bought a pack of gum with coins he found on the street?


Check the ball crawl

Maybe half the money I find is outdoors. The rest is on floors at stores, libraries and malls. Here are some of the places that Smart Spending readers and I have gleaned cash:

Vending machines, amusement parks, near parking meters and bus stops, in the reject bin of coin-counting machines, under fast-food drive-through windows, playgrounds, parking lots (especially bar parking lots), the area around the self-service vacuum at gas stations and car washes, and at the bottom of the ball crawl at Chuck E. Cheese

Here’s my favorite, though: A city dweller who, when he walks past discarded sofas or easy chairs, will check under the cushions for coins.

One reader says that her daily walks net her not just spare change, but extra My Coke Rewards points on discarded bottle caps. “Regardless of where it’s found (money) can still be spent or saved, right?” she notes.

Another writes that she’s finding less and less. In the past, trips to Safeway or Walgreens were good for three to five cents in pennies. No longer: “I am wondering if because of the economy people are being more careful with their change, or perhaps more people are picking up the change.”


Someone can use it

I suspect it’s a little of both. Then again, a reader who owns a couple of rental properties says that departing tenants routinely leave small coins scattered in the apartments. Some of those tenants are being evicted.

“One would think if times were tough and you can’t pay the rent you would ‘pinch pennies,’ not throw them on the floor,” muses the landlord. (He uses the change to help pay for new paint.)

Since arriving back in Anchorage at the end of May I’ve found $1.16 – two quarters, two dimes and 46 pennies. That’s pretty good considering that mostly I hang out with family or friends rather than in public places.

Not that I’m keeping the cash. It’ll go back to Seattle with me and added to my found-cash stash, to be donated in December. In 2009 I found $34.54, which became $50 for a North Seattle food bank.

This “found money” is a good way to stretch my giving dollars. And it’s why I’ll continue to pick up coins: Because someone needs them. Food banks can get an awful lot of bang out of fifty bucks.


A nation of germophobes?

There’s an antidote to dirt, viruses and germs. It’s called soap and water. When I’m away from home and have no access to a sink I can use the little bottle of hand sanitizer in my backpack.

Of course, the effect is negated as soon as I touch a store’s door handle, push a shopping cart or hold the handrail on the bus ride home.

I can’t help thinking that we’re a little too germophobic in this country. Yes, money is dirty. So is just about everything else we encounter on a daily basis.

Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your mouth or your eyes, and don’t pick up pennies if it grosses you out. It’ll just leave more for those of us who aren’t embarrassed to stoop down, and who remember to carry hand sanitizer.

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  1. People really give that excuse? Money is too dirty for them to touch? Gimme a break!

    Copper is mildly bactericidal, fungicidal, and viricidal. Silver is bactericidal, a good reason to bring back silver coins.

    The real reason is that most people are too lazy to bend down to pick up a coin. Well…and to be fair, most of us feel American coinage is so devalued it’s not worth picking up, an impression much fostered by the use of base metals in US coins. A coin is supposed to ring when it’s dropped on the floor, not go “clunk”!

  2. I remember one day when we were really young, my brother and I were walking out of a restaurant and to the car. Somebody must have lost a pocket full of change, because between the two of us, we came up with almost a dollar! That was a big deal when we were 5 and 8!

  3. I wonder how the increased use of credit cards impacts the amount of change found on the ground. I often find change in places that only accept cash, places like carnivals and boardwalks, but overall I wonder if there is simply less change circulating these days as more and more people use plastic.

  4. Jenny

    Wow…it never occurred to me until reading this to even worry about how dirty those pennies are I pick up. But I handle cash all day at my job, and some of that has been pretty skanky, so seems like the pennies can’t be worse.
    I believe debit cards probably have reduced the change in people’s pockets. It’s a rare 18 yr. old who will dig in his pocket and count out $3.68 for you–they just whip out the debit card.

  5. Bagel Girl

    I simply had to comment on renters moving out and leaving scattered change behind. I watched “Clean House” where a family was buried in clutter (and probably debt) and the adults just scattered their spare change and small bills in the mess because it wasn’t worth the bother for that small amount.

    When the house was completely emptied and cleaned, over FIVE THOUSAND dollars was found in the mess. Absolutely unbelievable. Get a clue, people.

  6. Donna Freedman

    Plastic may have something to do with it, because plenty of people carry little to no cash.
    But a few times in the past couple of months I’ve seen other people bend down and pick up what I assume are coins. Maybe it’s a coincidence, with no connection to the economy, but until recently I can’t remember seeing people do that.
    In fact, sometimes I feel a little odd doing it myself, especially if the street is full of people. But I simply remind myself that it’s one more coin for the food bank. That usually gets me to stop and stoop.
    Thanks to all for your comments, and for reading Smart Spending.

  7. Elizabeth

    I also enjoy picking up change – well, I enjoy the found $ 🙂 Occasionally I’m too shy to do it, like when I’ll cause a sidewalk jam during rush hour, etc., but mostly if anyone looks askance at me I’ll just smile and say “it’s good luck, right?” I agree that all money is dirty so the germ factor doesn’t deter me, except on public transit. Outside at least rain comes and cleans. On Chicago public transit and in the dank transit stations, I don’t think any cleaning has taken place since they were built and any wetness on coins is likely to be recent…and not from a dog…ewwwwwwww.
    I have found noticeably fewer coins overall recently, which I think is partly due to the economy and partly due to the city removing parking meters and installing pay boxes instead, which most people pay with credit cards. Rats!
    Thanks Donna for another fun post.

  8. Donna Freedman

    @Elizabeth: While I was still living in Alaska I visited my daughter in Washington, D.C., where she was interning. Moving around the city reminded me of something I’d forgotten since living in Philadelphia: That no matter where you sit, stand or lean, someone has probably urinated there. 🙁
    When someone catches me picking up a coin I’ll remark, “There’s my luck for the day” or “Someone has left his luck lying on the ground.” Then I remind myself that the vase in which I collect these coins is already more than half full — and that the food bank can buy a LOT of rice or powdered milk or dry beans for $50.
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. I pick up money each and every day. On average it’s a penny. I ALWAYS find a penny a day. No matter where I am. Sometimes, I’ll find them on hiking trails. On the edge of a table, on a seat of a cab BUT I pick up my daily pennies.

    A good day is a nickle or a quarter. A great day is a dollar, a five or a twenty. And yes, yes, yes, once I found a $100 bill on the floor.

    It’s suppose to be a good omen when you find money on the floor. I think of it as a sign from my deceased mother. She’s thinking about me and sending me good wishes. My mother could find coins anywhere!

    • Ron Hall

      I do the same thing Morrison…When I have money issues I talk to my deceased Mother and watch for coins…when I find one I know Mom has my back and the money issues disappear. =~)

  10. Nancy

    One of the best places to find spare change: the parking lot of a 7-11, Stop-‘n-Shop or other convenience store. People are often using these places because they are in a hurry, and if they drop change, they don’t notice.
    Another good one: any parking lot of an establishment where alcohol is served. If people drop the change, they are too woozy to bend over and get it. :}.
    How about a park, community center parking lot or your local streets after a festival? Stuff to buy plus crowds of people often equals change on the streets.

  11. My kids love it when they find money on the ground (especially parking lots) – even if it’s just a penny. They consider it a lucky day whenever they find coins. The only time my husband refused to let them pick up a penny was inside a public bathroom; the dirty & wet penny was right next to the urinal. Needless to say, the boys were quite upset that they were not allowed to keep it.

  12. Rachel

    My mom has always taught us to look for money. We would go on long walks when I was young and look for money and pick up cans. It was fun and a little competitive to see who would find a penny (or nickel, dime, quarter, dollar….) first. We always called out “Mine” if we saw a coin but were afraid we wouldn’t get to it first. We’ve all found considerable amounts of money. Upwards of $30 one time when someone must have dropped a small wad of bills getting into or out of their car at a restaurant. Maybe 3 – 5 times we’ve found $20 bills. But mostly it’s change we find and I always bend down to pick up a penny. We used to get down on the ground to look under the counter at the 7-11, where people dropped ALOT of change and didn’t bother to pick it up.

  13. I always pick up change — unless it’s summertime and the change is laying in a parking lot, but that’s only because I don’t want to get burned. Maybe I should start carrying a handkerchief for those occasions though 🙂

  14. Jenny

    This conversation must have sparked my finding luck–26 cents in the credit union parking lot tonight!

  15. We didn’t last for 40,000 years because a couple of germs on the ground could kill us (6000 for my creationist friends). We lasted because we’re made tough! Anyone who’s done some microbioligy knows exactly how useful those germs are and how many there are EVERYWHERE! It’s just a result of clever marketing from 1950’s onwards .

    My grandfather (god bless him) dropped $400 a couple of years ago, someone dropped it into the police, he went to the police hoping it was there, he asked for the details of the person and gave them half

  16. I was surprised that people are so germaphobic they won’t pick up money. Everyone is spot on about the germs we encounter in everyday life.


    When I was young (78 now) We teens used to check the phone booth coin returns AND the slot machines that were near the door of every restaurant in some western states. Rarely were they completely empty!!!

  18. Hi all, I have this big water jug that goes to a cooler and I have filled that twice w/pennies. Made 2 car payments from it and only half emptied it each time. The way I got so many pennies was not
    only off the street but got the most from where I worked. With permission, when my shift ended at the store, I would buy the pennies in the little dish. give one/take one. I would have spent the change if I hadn’t bought the pennies so to me it was a saving and did come in handy when I needed it the most.

    • Donna Freedman

      Smart. Keep saving!

      • My hubby is reupholstering a chair for someone and when he started to tear off the old material, he found 1.57 stuck in there. They said keep it, so it went into our saving jar. This has happened more than once over the last two years.

        • Donna Freedman

          My favorite place to have found loose change? A sofa on a Seattle street with a “free” sign on it. I checked under the cushions and sure enough….


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