I hardly use cash anymore. Almost every financial transaction I make as I go about my business is accomplished electronically or with plastic. Since putting to rest my cash-only experiment a year ago, I’ve only used cash in a couple of circumstances: food delivery when I’m too exhausted to cook, getting my clothing laundered or dry cleaned every few weeks, and supporting whatever issue for which my co-workers solicit (from Girl Scout cookies to bereavement gifts).
Hard money, coins and bills, are becoming obsolete. It will be a long time before cash ceases to exist in commerce, but physical money is less relevant for everyday commerce. Yet, the U.S. Mint continues to churn out billions of new coins each year. I’ve enjoyed collecting coins, hunting through change to find something rare or to fill holes in a book, but lately I’ve had much less of an opportunity to do so. I rarely have change in my pocket.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Mint (and Congress who has authorized this behavior) has gone overboard in their attempts to design coinage that has more value to collectors than it has to the general public. That will backfire; the mass quantities “collectible items” available make collecting them not a very special activity. Coin collecting will never again be the “hobby of kings.”
Rather than making an artistic design for a coin and letting it remain for a generation or two, the Mint presents programs like the State Quarters series. I thought this era was over; I didn’t realize until recently that the Mint intends to continue by releasing 56 more redesigns for the quarter, lasting until 2021.
The American the Beautiful Quarters series announced last year commemorates the establishment of national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. This is a worthy cause but I prefer Ken Burns’ documentary for drawing the public’s attention.
This is really about business. The Mint sells the coins to collectors at a significant mark-up from the face value of the coins, a mark-up that will most likely not be recovered by the collector.
There is some good news. The design for the reverse of the cent seems to indicate the Mint would like to return to a classical approach. I would prefer to see all “leader” portraits and buildings removed from coins to make way for more abstract or symbolic designs. The new union shield and ribbon is a step in the right direction.
Updated January 26, 2011 and originally published January 18, 2010.