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For the good of your country, Tampa Bay, turn in your coins

A national shortage of circulating coins caused by the pandemic has improved, but America could still use your quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies, experts say.
America could use more of these.
America could use more of these. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2020

Fun financial fact: A holiday survey by the coin-cashing company Coinstar says those of us with spare change have an average of $113 in quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies around the house, presumably scattered across dressers, lying in the bottoms of purses and sitting idle in change jars.

Financial experts would like us to cash in that spare change to push back against the improving, but continuing coronavirus coin shortage.

“Turn your coins in. Turn those coins into some folding money. Deposit it into your account,” said Steve Kenneally, senior vice president for payments at the American Bankers Association, who served this year on the U.S. Coin Task Force.

If everyone spent their change or cashed it in, “it would ease the problem,” said Brad Kamp, associate professor and chair at the University of South Florida Department of Economics.

Months into the pandemic, signs at cash registers and drive-thrus persist, asking customers to use credit cards or exact change because there are so few coins in the till.

But coin shortage is “sort of a misnomer,” said Brian Wallace, president and CEO of the Coin Laundry Association. (Nearly 90 percent of America’s 30,000 laundromats still accept quarters, and more than half depend on quarters as the only form of payment.) But coins are “just stuck, frozen in place in the cup holder of your car and the cushions of your couch,” Wallace said.

“There are plenty of coins,” said Kamp. “They just aren’t circulating.”

Tampa Bay businesses are coping with a continuing coin shortage in the pandemic.
Tampa Bay businesses are coping with a continuing coin shortage in the pandemic. [ SUE CARLTON | Times ]

According to the Federal Reserve in June, the coronavirus crisis “significantly disrupted” the coin supply chain. The U.S. Mint’s coin production had decreased because of safety measures put in place for employees, and coin deposits from institutions to the Federal Reserve also declined.

Knocked off our pre-pandemic routines, we consumers were no longer feeding change into office vending machines, tossing quarters into tollbooth baskets, paying parking meters, counting out change at 7-Eleven or dropping coins in tip jars at Starbucks as we once did. We shopped with cards instead of cash, often online instead of in person.

Hardest hit by the coin shortage have been the “unbanked” — people who don’t have access to bank accounts and depend on cash.

This summer, the U.S. Coin Task Force “urged all Americans to return their spare change to circulation by using it for retail transactions, depositing it with financial institutions, and/or redeeming it at coin-recycling kiosks.”

Businesses made appeals on social media. A Chick-fil-A in South Carolina offered a free sandwich for every $5 in cashed-in, rolled coins.

“I think once the retailers put out the notices (that said) we need the coins, a lot of people responded,” said Kenneally. “And that was very heartening.”

The Federal Reserve recently called the coin circulation issue “improving, but not yet fully resolved.” Steady deposits from financial institutions and elevated coin production from the U.S. Mint have allowed the removal of caps on bank orders for pennies, quarters and dimes, though a cap remains on nickels.

Locally, banks say things are better. Wells Fargo is “experiencing more consistent coin levels.” PNC said that while availability is still lower than usual, they’re now able to order larger quantities. Customers “are still encouraged to bring coins into their local branch,” said a PNC spokeswoman.

“Our clients are aware of the national shortage and have been very understanding,” said a spokeswoman for Truist, created by the merger of SunTrust and BB&T.

Coinstar, which operates those green coin-cashing kiosks at grocery stores for a service fee — 11.9 percent at a Tampa Winn Dixie recently — said the shortage has eased. But “the problem will persist until redemptions increase substantially from consumers.”

Kenneally said the situation has greatly improved, though there are still hot spot shortages in specific areas.

“Once the economy is on all eight cylinders and people are out there buying again, this will be taken care of across the board,” he said.

Procedures for cashing in coins at banks and credit unions vary. Some institutions provide free coin rolls for account-holders. Others have in-house coin-counting machines. Some branches remain closed. Contact your local financial institution for more information on cashing in coins.

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