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Changing our tune about pocket change

Brother, can you spare a dime, or a penny, nickel or quarter?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound change on so many things that we took for granted, including the availability of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but who would have ever thought that it would lead to a shortage of pocket change?

Some banks, merchants and retailers are begging for change, which continues in short supply in some parts of the Times News five-county region and across the United States.

I have had two telling personal experiences. First, I squirrel away any pocket change I have at the end of the day. Then, once every few years, I lug about 20 pounds worth of wrapped coins to my local bank and put the cash equivalent into my checking account.

The last time I did it, in 2017, the coins totaled about $450. After hearing and seeing the pleas of local banks for small change, I thought it was appropriate to do my patriotic duty a little earlier than usual, so I carted a little more than $300 in coins to my bank last week.

Usually, when I appear for this transaction, I have the ever-present enthusiastic greeting until the teller sees what I have brought. The smile slowly turns to something else. It’s not that she has to count 50 pennies, 40 nickels, 50 dimes and 40 quarters by hand after taking them from their wrappers, but there are so many wrappers to sort and tally.

This time, the enthusiasm did not fade as I strained to lift the container carrying the coins to pass to the teller.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “This is fantastic.” Her shout caught the attention of several nearby employees whose eyes brightened when they saw the coins. They made such a fuss that for a minute I thought I might be nominated for sainthood.

This time around, I had 15 wrappers of quarters, six of dimes, 27 of nickels and 84 of pennies - 132 in all.

Not all banks and credit unions will take your coins unless you are a depositor. Even then, they have limits on how much you can redeem. Under the current extraordinary circumstances, these banks with limitations may welcome you with open arms, even if you are not a depositor. But before you trek to the bank with your stash of cash, it might be a good idea to call ahead for ground rules.

The other modification of business as usual involves my twice-a-week takeout purchases at my favorite bagel place. I suggested to the owner, who also has been complaining about a shortage of coins, that he round off the transaction amount to the nearest dollar.

If, for example, my bill is $6.32, he will charge me $6; if it’s $7.65, he will charge my $8. He thought this was a great idea that he might propose to other regulars, too, until the coin situation eases.

So, what is causing this coin shortage? Chris Reber did an excellent article on this topic in the July 1 edition of the Times News, explaining the experiences of some local banks and retailers.

I have another theory to go with the others. There is a lot of concern about the economy right now, especially from those who are unemployed, furloughed or underemployed.

They are hanging on to every penny they can get their hands on, because they expect that once the federal unemployment benefits run out at the end of July, they will have just state unemployment payments to rely on, and they generally are about half of regular compensation.

How about this unscientific observation: During my daily morning walks, I find an average of about 60 cents a month lying on the ground. In the four months since the pandemic took a stranglehold on the region, I have found the grand total of two pennies. (Yes, I do stoop to pick up pennies. Hey, you never know.)

As Chris reported, the shortage of change has resulted because of two principal reasons - the U.S. Mint made fewer coins than usual this spring as it sought to protect employees from infection, and bank lobbies, where consumers often exchange coins for bills, were mostly closed during the peak period of the lockdown. Now, that is changing, so we should see a gradual return to normalcy.

Coin-cashing machines, which see a lot of traffic in normal times, have been in limited use as supermarket patrons prefer to limit their time inside the store and the number of trips they make.

Rep. John Rose, R-Tennessee, hasn’t lost his sense of humor about the situation. He told Fed Chairman Jerome Powell at a congressional hearing last month, “We don’t want to wake up to headlines of ‘Banks out of money,’?” he said.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com