The Case Against Pennies, Coins and Paper Money

I don't like carrying cash. I leave most of my change in tip jars. And on the nuisance scale, pennies for me fall somewhere between mosquitoes and DC parking laws. But reading Time to Cash Out by Wired writer David Wolman, I was pleased to discover the argument to do away with cash and coins makes even more sense than I imagined.



But let's begin this argument at the smallest level. It's well established that the pennies make no sense. They can cost almost twice as much to make as they're worth, and Americans throw them away all the time. My favorite factoid is that "breaking stride to pick up a penny, if it takesmore than 6.15 seconds, pays less than the federal minimum wage." They are, quite literally, not worth anybody's time.

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Moving on to other coins, they're all expensive little bothers. The nickel, for example, costs twice as much to make as it's worth. As Wolman recounts, minting money cost taxpayers $848 million in 2008, using up 14,823 tons of zinc, 23,879 tons of copper, and 2,514 tons of nickel.

And what of our beloved greenbacks? They're bulky and germ-filled, to be sure, but could we really get by without them? Well, it's clear that many of us don't need them, and least not most of the time. Two years ago, card-based payments surpassed paper for the first time ever, and the trend is only increasing. But what would we use in a fully cashless society?

Smart cards and cellphones. Programs like EagleCash and FreedomPay already allow military officers and college students to go cashless in foreign countries and campuses. Wolman also explains how mobile money systems on our phones can already "flash" money to merchants and banks. Interesting developments all, but more the beginning of a paperless currency than its triumph. Coins stink and paper's a pain, but we're still a way from an economy without bulky wallets and jangly pockets.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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