I love writing about a variety of topics, but I've always enjoyed writing about coin collecting or numismatics.
"A penny saved is a penny earned."
What if I told you that ol' Ben was underselling? Would you laugh? Would you call me crazy, then say a penny is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine these days? I'd wager yes on all three accounts!
Well friends, the simple truth is that Mr. Franklin, genius that he was, should have aimed a little higher. In point of fact, a penny saved is two pennies earned! It follows that four pennies saved are eight pennies earned, and sixteen pennies saved are thirty-two pennies earned. With a little mathematical reasoning, you can see how this could start to pay off: If you held in your possession a kind of legal tender, with an intrinsic worth equal to that of double it's face value, wouldn't you want to increase your holdings of this particular type of currency? Of course, you would! It would mean buying a dollar for fifty cents, ten dollars for five, and one hundred dollars for fifty!
On Wall Street, an investment that offers a hundred percent return is like a fairy-tale —something that stock brokers tell their children about at bedtime. What's more, you don't have to be a banking executive to know that if some money was worth double its face value, everyone would be scrambling to get their hands on it, right?
I know you're skeptical. I also know that, in these dishonest times, the unfortunate truth is that good people constantly have to be on the lookout for scams. But you just rest easy folks, and put your trust in Honest Earl. I'm the kind of guy that gals want to bring home to their mothers. My purpose is to educate, not to take your hard-earned money, and I won't play you false!
The Skinny on the Copper Penny
The long and the short of it is that U.S. pennies produced from 1959 up until the second half of 1982 were made of ninety-five percent copper and five percent zinc. Afterwards, the Federal Government decided that it would be more cost-efficient to produce pennies composed of a zinc core with a thin layer of copper plating. Essentially, they decided to cut their operating expenses (At least, as far as coin mintage goes!), as copper pennies are more expensive to produce than zinc pennies. Incidentally, copper pennies are intrinsically worth more than their zinc heavy counterparts.
Here's what I mean:
|Copper Penny Composition (1959-1982*)||Zinc Penny Composition (1982* onward)|
Multiplied by % (Cu):
Equals Mass of (Cu):
2.95 grams (Cu)
.0625 grams (Cu)
A more precise calculation for the metallurgic value of a copper penny would also include the value of the mass of zinc contained within the coin (.01555 grams). However, I have not included this step for simplicity's sake. You can find the spot price for zinc using the same resource cited for determining the spot price of copper, as well as other metals such as gold, platinum and aluminum at: Infomine.
According to the above table, ninety-five percent of the total mass of a so-called "Copper Penny," is pure copper; or, 2.95 grams (Cu). It follows that, to determine the metallurgic value for a coin of this type, you simply must multiply the mass in copper contained within the coin by the spot price of copper. For example, the spot price of copper1 at the time of this writing is $3.29/453.592 grams. Therefore, the metallurgic worth in copper for the penny is:
2.95g x ($3.29/453.592g) = $0.0214 (Rounded to the nearest ten thousandth)
Or, simply put: Each copper penny, worth a face value of $0.01, actually contains $0.02 worth of copper. (Remember, there are 453.592 grams in a pound, my fellow USCU users!)2
Getting back to the pennies: From 1959 through the first half of 1982, the U.S. mint produced in excess of three hundred billion copper pennies.3 Many of these are still in circulation, and can be found everywhere that cash is exchanged for goods and services. This means that every time you get small change back from the supermarket, the gas station, the butcher, the baker, or even the candlestick maker, there is a high probability you will receive copper pennies mixed among those coins. Many places of business will even have a "Take a penny, leave a penny" tray at the register, which are bound to contain copper pennies.
So, don't be shy! Ask cashiers and bank tellers if they have any rolls of pennies that they would be willing to part with (which you can sort through later), and whether or not they'd mind if you search their "Take a penny..." trays. You will find that opportunities to snatch up these little copper Easter eggs exist virtually everywhere in our great nation. The simple truth is that most people see them as a nuisance, and are quite happy to exchange them for higher, more easily manageable, denominations of currency. In fact, you'll find that the response you receive to ninety-five percent of your penny inquiries will sound something like this:
"You say you'd like to exchange a one dollar bill for four rolls of pennies?? No problem, sir/ma'am!"
The Downside of Copper Penny Hoarding & Final Thoughts
Ok, I've given you the molasses, but now it's time for the castor oil! Here's the rub: You can't melt down U.S. pennies to extract the copper. At least, not yet. It is a violation of federal law to deface U.S. currency, and as long as those good ol' boys and gals in Washington decide that pennies ought to be used in our—arguably— antiquated system of legal tender, that is how it's going to be! I could tell you that I know for sure the day is coming soon when the penny will be retired, but that would be a lie. No man or woman can predict the future, and anyone who tells you they can is either a liar or under network contract.
Also, it is important to realize that the monetary exchange value of copper will rise, and fall, depending on market conditions, as well as the principles of supply and demand. However, over the last quarter-century, the price for copper has shown an overall upward trend.(re: 1) It is a major element of industry, and demand for copper in the developing world continues to rise. Demand for copper stateside is also high, due to infrastructure and development projects.6
What I can tell you is that investing in copper pennies seems like a safe bet. But I would add that any bet, safe or otherwise, is still a bet. Therefore, as in all things, I do not recommend putting all of your eggs in one basket.
Should you get a big ol' glass jar and place any pennies from 1959 through the first part of 1982 in it? Yes. Should you, as a hobby, trade-in any loose change you can spare for copper pennies and toss them in that big ol' glass jar? You bet! You can even step up your game and purchase twenty-five dollars worth of penny rolls from your bank teller, in a neat little box, from time to time, and sort through them at your leisure! Then, re-roll all of the zinc pennies and trade them in for some more (Just mark the penny rolls you have already sorted, so you don't end up going through the same roll twice!). But, you should not convert all of your savings, take out a second mortgage on your house, or tap into your kid's college fund, just so you have as many copper pennies as you can possibly get your hands on.
So, happy copper hunting! But remember, if you ever feel like you're starting to come down with "Copper Fever," and you're getting close to stepping over the line, just remember some other wise words uttered by that late, great, author of Poor Richard's Almanac:7
"All things in moderation."
"Wait! Did Ben Franklin say 'All things in moderation,' or was it some Greek guy?? ... Ah, well."
Keep in Mind
As of the date of this writing, it is illegal to smelt U.S. pennies in order to extract raw copper, under federal law. This article was written in the spirit of investment, as in the gathering of a resource, in anticipation of the day where pennies have been taken out of circulation.**
- Copper Investing - Copper Stocks, Mining Companies, Prices and News [Internet]. Infomine; [cited 2013 Jun 3]. Available from: http://www.infomine.com/investment/copper/
- Wikipedia contributors. United States customary units [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Oct 16, 14:42 UTC [cited 2013 Oct 21]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=United_States_customary_units&oldid=577435075.
- Lincoln memorial cent 1959-2008 [Internet]. Coin Community Family; [cited 2013 Jun 3]. Available from: http://www.coincommunity.com/us_small_cents/lincoln_memorial.asp
- Wikipedia contributors. Dime (United States coin) [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Sep 21, 08:24 UTC [cited 2013 Oct 21]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dime_(United_States_coin)#Franklin_D._Roosevelt_.281946.E2.80.93present.29
- Wikipedia contributors. Nickel (United States coin) [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Oct 8, 18:14 UTC [cited 2013 Oct 21]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel_(United_States_coin)#Jefferson_nickel_.281938.E2.80.93present.29
- Wikipedia contributors. Peak copper [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Aug 21, 03:24 UTC [cited 2013 Oct 21]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Peak_copper&oldid=569517459.
- Wikipedia contributors. Poor Richard's Almanack [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Oct 14, 18:06 UTC [cited 2013 Oct 21]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Poor_Richard%27s_Almanack&oldid=577165049.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Earl Noah Bernsby
Springboard from Wisconsin on December 12, 2016:
Always a catch. Can't melt the bad boys down as you said. But you ALSO noted something very true of ANY penny and that is that most people consider them to be a nuisance. Spend a little time in a grocery store parking lot and other places and you are bound to find tossed piles of them lying around. I consider this to be an advantage, and no matter if they happen to be copper or zinc, they're still found free money and I will happily scoop them up and cash them in—and even invest them. :) BUT, I may just start actually hoarding the copper ones in the interim just in case they DO one day let us melt them down. Worst case scenario, they are still at least worth face value...so am I out anything aside from MAYBE a bit of interest or dividends had I invested them?
Earl Noah Bernsby (author) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 18, 2015:
Lol - You're not alone in that sentiment! http://www.retirethepenny.org/
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on May 23, 2015:
Interesting facts about the copper in pennies. I feel that they should discontinue making pennies - why produce a coin which will itself buy nothing? I think the problem comes with adding sales tax.
Earl Noah Bernsby (author) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 31, 2014:
Hey, thanks Peggy W! Yes, it certainly does take a lot of them — great fun, though!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 31, 2014:
Very interesting article! I don't know if I will live long enough to see pennies discontinued from use in our monetary system and it would take mounds of them even at double the value to add up. Now just out of curiosity, I may just start looking for them. ☺ Voted up, useful, interesting and will pin this to my board titled "Do you know this?"
Earl Noah Bernsby (author) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 20, 2013:
At the very least, he'll get good exercise lugging those jugs around! Be sure to employ proper lifting techniques or an able-bodied grandchild, old timer!!!
Eddie Carrara from New Hampshire on October 20, 2013:
Hey Earl, I was watching Pawn Stars the other night when the old man was hoarding copper pennies in 5 gallon buckets, I think he's on to something, lol, good read, interesting.