I recently had the opportunity to turn a massive box of coins I had been saving up into cash. It was the accumulation of about five years worth of change, and weighed a damn lot. On a whim, I measured it at the post office and it weighed 11 pounds, .5 ounces. When the bank sorted and counted the change, it turned out to be $116.97 -- not half bad for having done exactly zero work to earn it. All of this made me wonder how much my change was worth measured as a function of weight, and how it related to the values of other materials, so I did a little research. These metal prices are relatively recent, 1997 or so. The price per pound of change -- without regard to cultural money usage shifts -- cannot change much, as each type of coin always weighs the same.

Material           Dollars per

 Zinc:                  .046
 Lead:                  .224
 Copper:                .79
 Tin:                  2.31
 Nickel:               2.81
 Change:              10.60
 Silver:              64.75
 Gold:              3811.27
 Platinum:          8735.22
 Palladium:        12687.21
 Rhodium:          33540.90

This is in American dollars and British Standard units, for your reference.

hobyrne: First, I'm a poor college student, and never have much more than $50 riding in the bank at a time. Had the $20/year been there, it would've been spent. Second, fiddling about with depositing coinage in the bank or even carrying it to spend on purchases is simply not handy. Dropping it in the measuring cup of change on my desk is. Thus, I do the latter.

The Americans' attitude towards loose change is something I have yet to fathom.

I don't mean to pick on you in particular, enth. One of the things I find strange is the idea that change has some kind of value that one can get without working (and another prevalent idea is that change has no value). Assuming the money ultimately came from one's salary or wages, yes, of course one worked for it. Besides which, the change would have been worth even more if it had been spent. Think about it - say there's $100 in change over 5 years. That's about $20 a year that's been put into a jar instead of spent. If it had been spent, there would have been $20 less in withdrawals from the bank account each year. And that $20 would have been accumulating interest, so would have been more valuable. As it is, when one does not put in the small extra effort it takes to give correct change (or close to it) at the supermarket checkout, and one loses potential interest on that change. Counting the value does not make the value appear (it's a common mistake accountants make - numbers do not make reality), and depositing it now only starts the interest again when it could have been accumulating for years already.

There's more to reality than what one is aware of, I guess, and in particular there's more to worth than what one has counted.

Enth does have a point in that if one is aware that one has more money, one is more likely to spend it sooner - and money that is hidden or less accessible does not get spent. I had been making the assumption that when one spends money, the worth of what one receives is equal to the worth of the money paid. Now that I think about it, that's rather a stupid attitude. Visible money is spendable money, and the worth of saving money by making it invisible can outweigh the worth of having that money visible and earning interest, but being spent sooner so that both it and it's interest vanish. The flaw in my reasoning above is that if the $20 of change per year was spent instead of hidden, then there would have been $20 less in withdrawals from the bank account. That holds true only if one spends the same amount regardless of the money available at the time. For most humans, (including me,) that's not true.

/me understands a little better, and thanks Enth for making me think about it a little more.

I took the data provided by enth above, added some figures found in my own research, and tried to estimate the ratio of face value to market value of this particular distribution of loose change.

All American coins currently being produced for general circulation contain two of three metals in various proportions: copper, nickel, and zinc.

The penny or one cent coin weighs 2.5 grams and is 97.5% zinc, 2.5% copper by weight. A zinc core is coated with copper, which is why the coin has a copper color. Using enth's data, I calculated the metal in one of these coins to have a market value of 0.035¢. Prior to 1982, pennies were made from 95% copper. An older penny is worth about 0.435¢ as scrap metal, but they're still in circulation since their intrinsic value hasn't yet exceeded their face value.

The five cent coin is commonly called a nickel despite its composition of 75% copper, 25% nickel. Weighing in at five grams, the nickel contains 1.43¢ worth of metal.

The ten, twenty-five, and fifty cent coins, called the dime, quarter and half dollar respectively, are identically composed of 91.67% copper and 8.33% nickel. A mostly copper core is sandwiched between two layers of nickel in these coins, which were made of 90% silver until 1965 (those aren't in circulation any longer). Their masses are 2.228, 5.67, and 11.34 grams, the ratio of which is identical to the ratio of their face values. The metal in these coins is valued at 0.479¢, 1.20¢, and 2.40¢.

There are also a few varieties of dollar coins, but one is unlikely to appear in a lot of loose change, so is not included here.

I analyzed several possibilities for a group of coins weighing slightly over 11 pounds (5 kilograms after my conversions, to make calculations easier) and having a face value of about $117, and came up with the following plausible scenario:

  • 700 pennies, $7.00 face value, 1.75 kilograms. I estimated a 4:1 ratio of zinc to copper coins and arrived at a market value of about $0.80.
  • 200 nickels, $10.00 face value, $2.86 market value, 1 kilogram.
  • $100 face value of any particular assortment of dimes, quarters, and halves, all of which have the same face to market ratio. Halves are uncommon, so the actual box might have contained 300 quarters ($75.00) and 250 dimes ($25.00). The market value of these coins, weighing about 2.26 kilos, would be about $4.80.

The metal in that $116.97 box of change was worth about $8.46. Loose change, at least in the U.S., seems to be worth more than thirteen times the value of the metal it contains. Not that this really matters until the government collapses, though - paper money isn't worth anything without the declarations of the Federal Reserve to back it.

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