Out of all of my favorite interests or hobbies, coin collecting isn’t ranked first. It is something I’ve enjoyed throughout my whole life, however, even if it’s not something that’s been a primary goal or warranted much effort on my part. It is a great hobby for children for a number of reasons. It opens up the opportunity to talk about money and its proper management, but coins are more related to history than they are to personal finance. Looking through coins with children can help them learn about different periods of history and show how coinage often reflects its associated zeitgeist.
Coin collecting among adults, on the other hand, often focuses on the investment value of a collection. It’s true that you could make a lot of money by buying coins, having them professionally graded, and selling for a considerable gain, but getting to the point at which you’re succeeding with this type of technique is going to take a lot of time become an expert. For the amateur collector who does not attend auctions, dealers will always have the upper hand, buying from collectors for less than they could sell to other collectors. Coin collecting is simply more fun if you don’t do it for the money. Perhaps you’ll build up a nice collection throughout your life time to leave to your descendants, or perhaps you’ll work on your collection to have something interesting and artistic to look through once in a while.
Whatever your reasons, here is how to get started, whether alone or with a child who may be interested. The good news is that it doesn’t matter what your budget is. You can collect coins without spending any extra money, or you call storm in, spending unfathomable amounts to grow your collection if it suits you.
1. Pay in cash, get change, and look through it. One of the reasons I haven’t been putting a lot of effort into coin collecting recently is the fact that it’s rare that I have any change to look through. Paying for my day-to-day expenses with a credit card is helpful for increasing cash back rewards and keeps my pockets from getting heavier as they would when full of coins, I don’t get as much of an opportunity to look through change to add to my collection. The first step in building a collection, starting with circulated coins, is to get more change and sift through it.
As you’re sifting through, take the best looking specimen from each year and mint mark — a letter that designated the location the coin was created — and set it aside.
If you have time to spend, visit your local bank and buy rolls of coins. You can spend hours looking through the rolls, and you might find some small treasures, such as older, silver quarters or half dollars. You might find some “Indian head” cents. Once picking out your favorites, you can re-roll the rest of the coins and return them to the bank or spend them as you see fit.
2. Store the coins properly. The best coin storage for beginners is the set of Whitman coin folders. These folders have holes for each unique coin. They are great for beginners because they don’t take up much space and still provide some basic protection for the coins.
In my own collection, I’ve graduated to the Whitman coin albums, which offer additional protection for both sides of each coin — obverse and reverse — while allowing both sides to be viewed. Individual coins that have been professionally graded (assigned a somewhat objective score based on the coin’s condition by a professional organization) are usually stored in air-tight plastic display cases. There are other storage methods as well, but the Whitman folders and albums are great for most casual collecting.
If you manage to find anything valuable, consider a safe for storage, whether bolted into your basement, at a bank, or some other secure location.
You could simply store coins in a shoebox, as well. This is a free option (other than, perhaps, the cost of the shoes that come with the box) for those who just want to look through their change without long-term protection.
3. Know your coins — and their rough value. It’s very rare to find anything worth much more than face value when sifting through change, but you don’t want to skip over a 1984 cent featuring a “doubled ear” — a penny possibly worth $250. The best way to know about these variations — and the generally accepted value of every coin minted by the United States — is to procure a copy of the Official Red Book (A Guidebook of United States Coins). For more current prices, I usually check the PCGS coin price guide, but nothing beats the Red Book for information about each coin type.
There is no shortage of books to help you on your coin collecting journey. Here are some of the books that I’ve read and now recommend.
- Coin Collecting for Dummies
- A Guide Book of United States Type Coins (these guide books are available for a variety of other coins)
- Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins
There are also a number of online forums dedicated to coin collecting, where new hobbyists can meet enthusiastic and mostly friendly dealers and collectors. Two of my favorites are Collectors Universe and CoinTalk. Consider lurking for some time before posting your first message to get a feel for how these communities operate.
4. Go to a coin show. One of the best ways to get a good idea of the size of the world of coin collecting is to go to a coin show. You can find a local show by browsing this list. These shows are set up so that the public — coin enthusiasts and dealers — can visit tables set up by other dealers and companies like Whitman. Most dealers are quite happy to talk to new collectors. Most are enthusiastic about passing interest in the hobby along to the next generation and some will offer free coins to new young numismatists (YNs).
A non-expert like myself might not feel comfortable communicating with the experts that frequent coin shows. If you approach the event with the attitude that observing others immersed in the activity will be a good way to learn, and you keep your mind open to new experiences, it will be a good way to grow more familiar with the activity in real life. Many people at these events are professionals, earning their living from dealing with coins, but some are casual collectors.
Coin shows are generally free to the public.
5. Set your first collecting goal. Many young collectors start with cents. With the Whitman Lincoln Cents folders in hand, the first goal for collectors is often to fill this book with cents containing President Lincoln’s image with each date and mint mark since 1909. It’s possible to complete this book mostly by looking through change, though I haven’t completed mine yet. It will grow more difficult as collectors take wheat cents (those with ears of wheat on the reverse rather than the more common but no longer current Lincoln Memorial) out of circulation.
One of the more popular goals for collectors is a U.S. type set. This is a collection of coins that contains one representative piece from all types of coins put into circulation by the United States. A type set can be defined in the manner the collector likes; for example, a 20th century type set could include one of each major design of cent, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar since 1900. A full type set would look further into the past, requiring specimens from each design since 1792, including half-dimes, three-cent pieces, gold dollars, and eagles. Another popular type set in recent years is the state quarters type set. Collectors can still easily find all state quarters, a series that began in 1999 and was expanded to include the District of Columbia and other American territories, in circulation.
Working on one or a small number of goals enables the collector to focus her efforts by researching the history of that particular coin or those coins.
If your coin collection grows and you become a serious collector, with valuable pieces and an eye for investing, align yourself with a trusted local dealer. Your dealer can represent you in auctions, submit coins to be graded for you, and stay on the look-out for coins that meet your interests.
Updated December 11, 2012 and originally published December 23, 2010.