How Much is America's Spare Change Worth?

A tiny detail of President Barack Obama's budget proposal from Monday suggested a pretty major discrepancy in the way U.S. currency works: Pennies and Nickles are worth, on their faces, less than half the value of their materials.

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A tiny detail of President Barack Obama's budget to allow the U.S. Treasury Department to make coins out of cheaper materials made us wonder: how much are those metal disks accumulating in our change jars worth? The Washington Post reported the proposal was made becuase pennies cost 2.4 cents to make and nickels 11.2 cents because they are no longer made of straight copper and nickel. The website for the U.S. Mint breaks it down: "Quarters and dimes are composed of cupro-nickel clad, with a pure copper core, and an outer layer of a 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel alloy. Nickels are made from the same 75-25 alloy, and the cent, once a copper coin, is now composed of copper plated zinc." According to the website Coinflation, all of those materials are becoming more expensive: "Copper/Nickel/Zinc prices move in either direction primarily based on short-term physical demand and speculation on economic manufacturing forecasts. On the supply side, mining isn't keeping up with demand and the market has responded with higher prices."

The U.S. Treasury no longer keeps track of what's in or out of circulation, said U.S. mint spokesman Michael White. But we can get an idea of how many coins it's making from the Mint's site: In 2010, the U.S. produced 6.373 billion coins, including about 4.01 billion pennies and about 490.5 million nickels. In 2011, it produced 8.2 billion coins, including 4.939 billion pennies and 990 million nickels. That means pennies made up about 63 percent of the value of coins produced in 2010 and nickels about 7.6 percent. In 2011, about 60 percent of the coins made were pennies and 12 percent were nickels.

Most of those shiny new coins have a better chance of being passed arounds at coffee shops and delis, but the spare change we're interested in is the coins that have fallen into your couch, between your floorboards, and accumulating in your change jar.  That's the stuff that's considered out of circulation. And Coinstar (the company that operates those change-counting machines) has an estimate for what it's all worth: "Our research indicates that there’s approximately $10 billion out of circulation at any given time in the U.S.," said spokesperson Sarah Ward Jones. Last year, Coinstar processed 46 billion coins. "Typically over half of those are pennies," but that's as close as Coinstar wanted to come to giving a total value of the spare change that's dumped into its machines.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.