Driving home from Gulf Shores, Alabama last weekend, I may have encountered the future of the U.S. monetary system: The disappearance of the penny.
Sorry, Abe, you’ve got to go.
Somewhere along I-10, I’m not sure which exit, it was late and I was running on fumes (not the car, me), I stopped at an Arby’s. I ordered the new Bourbon BBQ Brisket Sandwich. Didn’t order a soft drink because I make long drives with a two-liter Diet Pepsi on the passenger seat.
Total price, including tax: $7.03. I gave the assistant night manager a $20 bill.
And that’s when the future appeared in a vision. The cash register clicked $7.03, accepted $20...change $13.
Not the mathematically correct $12.97. Or a ten, two singles, three quarters, two dimes — and three nuisance pennies.
But $13 even. Much appreciated. This wasn’t human error, or calculated shortcut to keep the line moving. The cash register made the decision automatically.
For years, there’s been an idea floating in Washington: it’s time to eliminate the penny. It’s not just that a penny is pretty much worthless, it’s a loss leader. It costs the U.S. Mint 1.66 cents to manufacture a 1.0 cent penny. Even for the federal government, that’s stupid spending.
Ever get behind somebody fumbling for pennies in the drive-through so they can pay the exact bill at Wendy’s? You know why people do that? So they don’t get more pennies back from the cashier. Vending machines don’t accept pennies. Car manufacturers should stop calling it an “ashtray.” It’s a “penny holder.”
When the penny holder gets full, you take them to the supermarket and pour them into the Coinstar machine, which charges a muscular 12-percent fee if you want a cash receipt.
Loan sharks should be embarrassed by Coinstar. Rodney Dangerfield used to tell a joke: “When I was starting out, I borrowed $100 from a loan shark. I paid him $20 a week for 10 years and still owed him $500.”
Coinstar isn’t that bad...but a machine can dream, can’t it?
It’s hard to find a bank that will count your coins for free, and those that do often have a $25 limit. Then they charge a 5 percent fee. Most banks will give you coin wrappers for free, though. Now there’s a ton of fun, stuffing 50 pennies into a wrapper. An hour later, you still haven’t put a dent in that jar of pennies on your bedroom dresser.
There is an understandable argument to keep the penny. Less-fortunate people may worry that businesses will round up prices, and every penny counts. I get that.
But let’s have faith that retail won’t take advantage and screw the consumer a couple of pennies here and there, which would add up, no question.
New Zealand deep-sixed both its penny and 2-cent coin in 1989. Check Travelocity — there’s a non-stop flight from Houston to Auckland. New Zealand survives without worthless little coins.
Then there’s the sentimental value of pennies. Used to be you could buy a piece of Bazooka bubblegum for a penny. Used to be was a long, long time ago. There’s nothing at the corner convenience store for a penny anymore — except the little dish of pennies, so you can avoid getting pennies back from the cashier.
There are always pennies in that dish. Stores can’t even give ’em away.
That Arby’s on I-10 is ahead of its time — it’s time to do away with pennies. (And my Bourbon BBQ Brisket Sandwich was really good, even by finicky Texas barbecue standards.)
Until the penny is banned, it will continue to serve its main function, causing a racket in the clothes dryer because you forgot to empty your pants pockets before doing a wash.
Should the U.S. ditch the penny? Let Ken know on Twitter.