The other day I was wandering around the gift shop of a Tampa Cracker Barrel after breakfast when a cashier walked up and asked if I had any change to spare.
Because her register didn’t, and she had a line of customers waiting to pay.
In the Before Times, my answer would have been an enthusiastic yes, I have coins and could you please relieve me of some of them? The bottom of my purse tended to be weighted down with quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies carelessly dropped in whenever I was handed change and ready to be spent when I needed them. It had been the occasional problem getting that purse through a metal detector.
But no, on this day I could not help by cashing in my coins for her bills because there was not a single sad penny in my bag. Like a lot of us in this past pandemic year, I’ve used credit and debit cards more and cash less, so there went my steady supply of change.
On another day, the clerk at the gas station told me she couldn’t keep enough quarters — a problem when customers want to vacuum out cars or put air in tires via machines that live off coins.
A year and a half into this pandemic, it’s just one of the many ripples still affecting consumers: A coin shortage that continues to have some businesses pleading for exact change and warning customers they have little to spare.
Did I say shortage? More like disruption.
David Ryder, who was director of the U.S. Mint until Oct. 1, has emphatically said no, what some are continuing to experience is not a coin supply problem but a lack of coins circulating — not enough existing coins moving out and about in the world.
No question, we’ve relied more on transacting electronically instead of spreading around cash. Add to that those businesses that shut down in the pandemic, further hampering the regular flow of coins into our economy.
Hardest hit by this have been people who don’t have easy access to credit cards and rely on cash, and businesses like laundromats that need coins for their daily commerce.
In a May public service video, Ryder said we were in fact at “near record production levels,” having minted nearly 21 billion coins since 2020. But, he said, we can’t “manufacture our way out of this problem.”
“Only with your help can we jumpstart the flow of coins,” he said.
Yes, he meant us.
Our coins sit idle on the tops of dressers and in car cupholders, under couch cushions and in spare change jars. It’s practically an American tradition.
“There is approximately $48.5 billion in coin already in circulation, much of which is sitting dormant inside America’s 128 million households,” said a statement from the U.S. Coin Task Force.
Those who want to see coins moving again would like to get us spending that spare change. And to make a point of using exact change while we’re at it.
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They’re also encouraging us to take our collected coins to banks (be sure to check out your particular institution’s rules on this first) and to feed change into those coins-for-cash kiosks at our local grocery stores to get things flowing.
“If just a fraction of the coin sitting dormant in households and businesses is redeemed and reused, this problem can be greatly reduced,” said the U.S. Coin Task Force.
Ryder’s rallying cry: “Together we can get coins moving again and into the hands of the people and businesses that desperately need them.”
Which sounds a little like a call to arms to spend our spare change.