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Issue Date: Vol. 49, No.1, January 2009, Posted On: 1/22/2009

EDITORIAL: The Vanishing Quarter

Marcus Webb

Five real-life stories cast an interesting light on the future of coin purchases in the U.S. 

First story: I recently spoke to a young man who described a summer job working the counter at a mom-and-pop burger joint. One lesson he learned, he said, was that “men don’t carry change.”

When the burger joint launched, the owners ran a promotion selling hamburgers for 25¢. Naturally, the place was flooded with buyers – but not one of the customers had any quarters. “We had to stock rolls of quarters so we could break $1, $5 and $10 bills,” said the young man. “All these guys from construction crews at nearby projects didn’t want to carry any change around.”

The young man thought about this. “Come to think of it, I don’t carry any change either,” he said. “I know I’m going to lose it, so I just give it away to the charity collectors outside the mall or whatever.”

Second story: I recently purchased an item at a convenience store.  The price was $2.57. I gave the clerk two $1 bills, two quarters, a nickel and two pennies. The clerk stared at me like I had two heads. “You are very unusual,” she finally said. “Nobody carries change anymore.”

Third story: I met some friends for dinner at a restaurant located inside a hotel. While waiting for my party to arrive, I decided to buy a newspaper from the hotel vending machine. The only coins I had in my pocket were pennies, nickels, dimes and a Sacagawea $1 coin, received in change from an experimental vending machine located in the basement of my office.

The hotel’s newspaper venders accepted quarters only, so I went to the front desk. I put the $1 coin on the counter and said, “May I have four quarters please?”

The clerk glared at the coin. “Why should I give you four quarters for one quarter?” she sneered.

“That’s not a quarter,” I said. “It’s a $1 coin.”

With a suspicious look, the clerk picked up the $1 coin. She handled it cautiously, as if it might bite her. Finally, and with obvious reluctance, she handed over four quarters. “We don’t see many of those,” she said. No kidding.

Fourth story: This comes from overseas, but it could happen here tomorrow. It seems Argentina is experiencing a mysterious coin shortage. According to the online magazine Slate, the result is that “vendors here are more likely to decline to sell you something than to cough up any of their increasingly precious coins in change.”

What’s behind Argentina’s coin shortage? The government blames citizens for hoarding; consumers blame the government for insufficient production. Everyone blames bus companies and organized crime for a coin-conversion fee bamboozle. (Cops recently seized a stash of 13 million Argentinean coins from a bus warehouse.)

Fifth story: A recent guest editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sharply criticized the National Automatic Merchandising Association for lobbying Congress to stop printing $1 bills in favor of exclusive reliance on $1 coins. The author, Hudson Institute member Richard Miniter, claimed coins are expensive to make and circulate. He recounted familiar opinion polls, and the failures of three different $1 coin designs in the marketplace. The $1 coin, he argued, is deeply unpopular.

Miniter charged that NAMA’s lobbying “blatantly misrepresents the facts … [and] undermines the interests of the vending-machine operators whom NAMA claims to represent.” He added: “Today, more Americans are using credit cards than ever before. Instead of pushing for $1 coins, NAMA should be encouraging its members to invest in technology to allow credit card purchases at vending machines.”

Coins have existed in one form or another for at least 2,600 years, so it’s difficult for many industry members to imagine life without them. But based on the above stories, a growing number of “regular civilians” are finding it easier and easier to imagine a coin-free existence.

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