Conversations in Management: Loose Change

“A fool and his money are soon parted.”

    Thomas Tusser.

Loose_ChangeAdolescents do crazy things and they’ve been doing them for a long time. If we’re honest, few of us can look at our high school yearbook without at least a twinge of embarrassment over our teenaged sartorial and grooming choices. Given this timeless truth, it will come as no surprise to learn that I too succumbed to the craziness. It was 1960 something when for reasons unknown the kids in my high school went on a war against pennies. No one can tell how it started but overnight it became un-cool to be found in possession of a penny. Kids buying lunch in the cafeteria would toss their pennies on the floor as soon as they sat down. Anyone rooting around their pocket for ice cream money and finding a penny would drop it as if it were red hot. No snitch ever dropped a dime quicker than we dropped a penny. As a brown-bagger with severe cash flow problems, I was sidelined from this activity but did take note. What I noted was that while I didn’t have any ice cream money, there were enough pennies to buy a Good Humor Chocolate Éclair Bar within inches of my foot. Abandoning all dignity and demonstrating an astonishing disregard of peer pressure, I scooped up ten cents from the floor. The tasty Good Humor Bar made it easy to ignore the derision of my classmates. You know where this is going. Other kids started picking up the pennies and enjoying complimentary ice cream. It took some time, but the idiots—I mean my fellow students—finally stopped throwing their money away. The war was over. Or was it?

I was sent on this trip down memory lane after reading a Tweet from TSA’s press secretary, Ross Feinstein about loose change. Federal law permits the TSA to keep any loose change left by travelers at airport checkpoints. This may not seem like a big deal until you realize that last year they collected $674,841! That’s a lot of loose change. But this gets worse. A study at a Massachusetts garbage incinerator revealed that Codfish State residents threw away about $8,000 in coins a day. And that’s at only one incinerator. But wait—there’s more! It seems if we aren’t leaving it behind or throwing it away, we’re simply ignoring our loose change. In fact there’s so much change sitting around that a company—Coinstar—went into business to encourage people to exchange coins for eminently more desirable folding money. Coinstar has a bright future because they estimate there’s $10 billion sitting in jars, behind sofa cushions, in desk drawers and in the bottom of those ubiquitous backpacks we all seem to favor. So many coins put to so little use.

Now, if you’re of a certain age you’ll probably remember your mom telling you to eat your dinner because, “There are children starving in China.” And you probably imprudently replied at one time or another, “Well then box this up and send it to them.” The only thing getting “boxed” at that point were your ears. But mom had a point (didn’t she always?)—it’s just not right to throw away food when people are, in fact, starving. Today, billions lack common necessities like electricity, clean water, education or medicine, to say the least of food. I’m not suggesting you send your pocket change to these folks. But maybe we should pay attention to what we leave behind, throw away or ignore. Perhaps managing our small change can lead to big change. It is money we’re talking about. You can buy stuff with it—like a Good Humor Chocolate Éclair Bar. Or something better? —Ebert

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