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Why the bank hates your coins

Don't expect big smiles when you show up with jars of pennies.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 26, 2009 4:03AM

Putting all your change in a jar each night is a time-honored frugal hack. One guy bought himself a new pickup after setting aside coins for years. A Smart Spending message board reader named "Amberstorck" wasn't aiming that high -- she just wanted to save some money. 

But now she's having trouble unloading the lucre. Local grocery stores refused her rolled change. Her bank charges a 6% coin-counting fee. "What is the point of saving coins if nobody will take them?" Amber wrote in a message board thread

The fact is, banks are legally allowed to charge a counting fee or to refuse to accept Miracle Whip jars full of pennies and nickels.

But if they don't like your change, you are free to make a change of your own -- as in a change of banks. 

It ain't heavy, it's my quarter
Viewed from the banks' point of view, coins are a hassle. They're bulky to store and heavy to transport. They take time to count, which could mean slower-moving lines. At least, that's what Carol Kaplan of the American Bankers Association told me.

Buying and maintaining coin-counting machines can be pricey, too, Kaplan says -- but banks that accept customer-counted change may find those rolls to be either a little short or dotted with foreign coins.

That said, she has a simple solution for coin-toting customers: Vote with your feet. "Banks are always competing for new customers," Kaplan notes. "If they're not offering a financial service you want, shop around."

As for supermarkets not accepting margarine tubs full of pennies, that's legal too. The Web site for the U.S. Department of the Treasury notes that no federal statutes require that "a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins (as) payment for goods and/or services … unless there is a state law which says otherwise."

A penny for your stamps?
So what's a frugal coin-saver to do? Readers had a number of suggestions for using up that pesky specie:

  • Coinstar machines don't charge a counting fee if you're buying a gift card. "Dhunny318" uses them to take herself and her husband to the movies. "ChiltonGurl" suggests saving them until it's time for Christmas shopping.
  • Use a dollar or two in coins every time you shop. Small businesses especially may appreciate the influx of change.
  • Put change in plastic eggs for Easter egg hunts.
  • Keep coins in your car's ashtray for tolls and parking meters, or use them when taking the bus.
  • Buy stamps from postage machines inside U.S. post offices.
  • Roll the coins and keep them on hand as part of your emergency "cache of cash."
  • Include a dollar or two in change every time you make a bank deposit. Surely the tellers won't mind counting to 10 or 20?
  • Donating to the office coffee fund or a gift for a co-worker? Include a couple bucks in change.
  • If your kids get allowances, give some of it in coins.
  • Donate it to "cause" cans at cash registers, or drop it in the church collection plate.

Finally, some readers agreed that you should simply find a more accommodating bank or credit union.

Every bank does it differently
Last weekend I emptied my own piggy bank of $8.75 -- one Kennedy half-dollar and the rest in dimes and nickels -- and headed off to Washington Mutual. 

A courteous teller named Maria Ayala counted it all out and said, "For the future I'm going to give you some rolls to put the coins in. We ask that customers wrap their change."

Had they refused to accept the coins, I would have politely asked to speak to the branch manager. My first question would have been where the no-coins policy was posted. My second would have been why they weren't working harder to keep customers happy since, as the ABA spokeswoman noted, there are plenty of banks from which to choose.

I'm not exactly a high roller, so to speak. But I'm old school enough to think that the needs of all customers should matter.

That said, I'll admit I wouldn't like to be standing behind a guy with a Hills Bros. coffee can full of pennies. At my bank, at least, that wouldn't be a problem -- they'd just give him a fistful of wrappers.

Published May 5, 2008

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